Vermont Counterculture Spotlighted in Barre Exhibit

FREAKS, RADICALS & HIPPIES: Counterculture in 1970s Vermont
Vermont Heritage Center
Barre, Vermont
Through September 2017

Vermonters are known for their contrarian streak, but until quite recently that streak was of "crusty conservative" variety. Vermont once voted in an Anti-Masonic ticket and it and Maine were the only states never to go for Franklin Roosevelt at least once. There were pockets of progressivism–religious visionaries in the 1830s, Knights of Labor in Rutland in the 1880s, and socialist mayors in Barre in the early 20th century–but Vermont was a red state. Every one of its governors from 1856 on was a Republican until Phil Hoff took office in 1963 and even then, it was another ten years until Vermonters elected another Democratic governor. Today, Vermont is reliably blue–and invokes images of Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, and Ben & Jerry.  How did that happen?

Vermont is a small place–only Wyoming has fewer residents–but it used to be a whole lot emptier. Today's population of 620,000 is 55% higher than its 1900 population of 343,641, but that doesn't tell the whole story. For that, check out the exhibit Freaks, Radicals & Hippies. Today's Vermont is a product of the late 1960s and early 1970s. From 1900 to 1960, the Green Mountain State added just 46,000 residents; in the next twenty, its population soared by over 122,000–nearly 32%. Many of them identified as "freaks," "hippies," "progressives," and "radicals." Collectively they transformed Vermont's crusty conservative consciousness to one that tolerated, then embraced countercultural ideals. Today's most popular Vermonter, independent socialist Bernie Sanders, was part of that tidal wave–a Brooklyn-born Jew who moved to Vermont in 1968 and was viewed by the few who knew him as a crank, but 13 years later was elected mayor of Burlington, the state's largest city.

If you're near Barre in the next eleven months, pop into the Vermont Heritage Center and check out Freaks, Radicals & Hippies. It won't take long–the entire exhibit is a single medium-sized room–but you will be transported to a bygone era. If, like me, you are of certain age, you will experience the frisson of nostalgia. (I worked a bit on several Sanders' campaigns, including his 1981 mayoral election.) If you are a younger traveler, you'll learn about the power of optimism.

Vermont became a countercultural epicenter for a simple reason: there was a lot of available cheap land. Old-timers complained of the hippie influx, but hippies saved Vermont in very material ways. So many back-to-the-land idealists set up communes on failed Vermont farmlands that no one knows exactly how many there were. (It is said there were 38 communes just between Montague, Massachusetts, and Putney, Vermont.) You can hear oral testimonies from several former communards and locate numerous experiments on a large state map. As elsewhere, most of these efforts foundered quickly, but not before their residents launched progressive education enterprises, brought niche farming to the state, crisscrossed the region with hip business start-ups, and created the very "day-glo" capitalism that spawned the Vermont "brand" for which it is known today. 

At first glance, this exhibit appears old-fashioned in that it relies heavily upon static wallboard text panels. There are a few monitors playing video clips, the aforementioned audio clips, and a reconstructed (and not terribly authentic) geodesic dome. The "stars" of the show reside in glass showcases or hang on the walls: underground newspapers, banners, posters, flags, and ephemera that represent countercultural movements ranging from anti-Vietnam protests, drug advocacy, and the ecology movement to modern spinoffs such as progressive politics, live-and-let-live ethics, eco-consciousness, and the sustainable agriculture movement. Check out how so many pictures from today are full-color analogs of back-and-white images from decades ago. It slowly dawns on the viewer that the exhibit's seemingly simple mix of old-school display with just a splash of modernity mirrors Vermont's subtle but inexorable transformation.

Freaks, Radicals & Hippies is a quiet rejoinder to wrongheaded assertions that the 1960s were little more than an age of wretched excess. It is a snapshot of a state remade in a countercultural image. Some folks still don't like that, but if hippies had never happened, it's not too hard to imagine Vermont as the Appalachia of New England punctuated by ski lodges for the one-percent. Another reason to see this exhibit: It captures a permeating element of the 1960s that's sadly in short supply these days–hope.

Rob Weir 


James Madison versus James Polk: Pairing Presidents XXI

James Madison versus James Polk:

In the 1960s a popular poster bore the sentiment, "War is not healthy for children or other living things." It's often not very healthy for nations or the popularity of presidents either. History books, on the other hand, are often too kind to wartime presidents. That's certainly the case with James Madison (1809-17) and James K. Polk (1845-49), who occupied the White House during two of the nation's least popular conflicts: the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.

Unpopular recent wars such as Vietnam and the Gulf Wars are more typical than unique. Ex post facto glorification of warfare notwithstanding, World War Two stands nearly alone in U. S. history in that it generated little domestic opposition. Conscription has never enjoyed support; Americans will volunteer for wars, but being drafted is a different matter.

How they are smiliar:

Madison and Polk were Southerners that owned slaves–more than a hundred in the case of the Virginian Madison, and 25 for the Tennessean Polk. Neither felt that Congress should interfere with slavery, though Madison did not object to emancipating them on an individual basis. (He also favored colonization for liberated slaves.) Polk didn't even wish to discuss slavery, but he very much favored expanding the institution. Both supported the concept of states' rights, though it was more theoretical in Madison's case.

The most obvious similarity is that each president involved the United States in wars whose motives were questioned. How one assesses either man depends upon the value one places upon steadfast leadership versus the wisdom of going to war in the first place.

James Madison

The War of 1812 cannot be divorced from the European context that led to the development of the first party system (Federalists versus Democratic-Republicans). The French Revolution began four years after the American Revolution ended in 1783. George Washington did not feel the U.S. was powerful enough to take sides in the conflict. The French Revolution passed through various phases before Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, and the revolution's assault on monarchy invariably drew France into a European-wide war. To simplify, Federalists like Washington and John Adams feared that French radicalism could spill into the United States, whereas Democratic-Republicans like Thomas Jefferson admired the revolutionaries. Jefferson agreed, however, that the U.S. needed to stay out of the European conflict, especially since powerful Great Britain headed the anti-Napoleon coalition. Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807 sought to preserve American neutrality by banning trade with either side.

The problem for Madison, Jefferson's successor, was that the embargo was very unpopular. He campaigned to repeal it and kept his word, an act that increased British raids on U.S. ships and sometimes led to impressments, the commandeering of U.S. sailors on the pretense that they were actually British citizens. This caused such outrage that "war hawks" gained control of Congress and demanded war against Britain. They were also furious that the British, from their base in Canada, armed Native Americans in the Northwest Territory (today's Midwest). Madison obliged war hawks and the War of 1812 was on.

The actual reasons for war were not as clear-cut as they appeared. The French also raided American ships and the precise border between Canada and the United States was anybody's guess. Anglophobia, anti-Indian racism, and politics perhaps played a big role, as did Madison's lack of restraint. The war went so badly that Washington and Jefferson appeared prescient for keeping the U.S. out of the European conflict that Madison brought to North America. Americans won some skirmishes, but mostly they lost. Even victories exacted horrifying tolls, as happened in Tecumseh's War against the Shawnees. In 1814, British troops burned much of Washington, D.C., including the White House and the U.S. Capitol, the latter of which hadn't even been finished! The war went so badly that citizens in the Northeast spoke contemptuously of "Mr. Madison's war" and some openly favored the British. Daniel Webster (NH) opposed Madison's 1814 conscription plan with such vitriol that the president dropped it. In December of 1814, some New England leaders gathered for the Hartford Convention. Among the things discussed were suing for a separate peace with Britain, or Northern secession from the Union! Had not Britain been overly occupied with Napoleon, the American experiment might have died at the age of 30. In a very real way, Napoleon saved the United States.

Or perhaps he saved it twice! Napoleon was exiled in 1814, escaped, and had to be defeated again (Waterloo) in June of 1815. From September of 1814 through June of 1815, the British led the Congress of Vienna, which planned for a post-Napoleonic Europe. The war-weary Brits were anxious to end their silly conflict in America and signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. No land changed hands and the only thing of consequence that came out of it was that Britain refused to return slaves that escaped to their lines. Had not the 1815 Battle of New Orleans ended in American victory on January 18, 1815, before news of the treaty made its way across the Atlantic, the War of 1812 would surely have been viewed as what it was: a dangerous folly.

James Polk
Yet the 1812 conflict was almost moral compared to Mexican War, an imperialist land grab that gave fodder to those who blamed the Civil war on a slaveocracy led by Southern elites. There is little doubt that slaveholders lusted for expansion, as cotton production quickly depleted soil. Polk brought a bellicose personality to the White House; he was like Andrew Jackson in personality and in determination to have his will done. He was also very Machiavellian.
Weeks before he took the White House, Polk consulted with his predecessor John Tyler and completed a plan for Texas annexation through a maneuver known as a joint resolution that required only a majority vote by both houses of Congress, rather than a 2/3 vote of just the Senate.

Polk also used a ploy to divert attention from plans to expand southward by kicking an old adversary: Britain. The border with Canada had been hammered out everywhere except in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon Territory). Polk encouraged war hawks crying "Fifty-four forty or fight!" This Congressional faction wanted the U.S. to annex land extending up the west coast to the southern reaches of Alaska (today's British Columbia and western Alberta.) Instead, a treaty extended the 49th parallel line to the Pacific Ocean. It allowed Polk to play peacemaker, but you know the deal isn't on the level when your Secretary of State is James Buchanan!

Oregon hid Polk's motive of buying Alta California, a huge swath of land that Mexico had no interest in selling. He sent John Slidell to negotiate, and when Mexico said no, clamored for war on the grounds that Slidell had been insulted, but that didn't convince many outside the South. (The pro-slavery Slidell would later join the Confederacy and serve it as an ambassador.) Instead, Texas provided the perfect ploy. On April 26, 1846, Congress approved a declaration of war based on Polk's assurance that Mexico had "invaded" Texas. Not so! Maps of the former Lone Star Republic reveal that the Nueces River as its western and southern border. Polk sent Zachary Taylor to Texas to occupy lands between the Nueces and the Rio Grande River, where troops had a small set-to with Mexicans wondering why Taylor was in their country. In short, Polk manufactured the war! It was already on by the time the North found out it had been duped. Tax resistors such as Henry David Thoreau launched protests, Polk was burned in effigy throughout the Northeast, and war critics included Frederick Douglass and Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln. The war was won rather speedily and the Treaty of Guadalupe forced Mexico to cede about a third of its land, basically most of today's Southwest and Great Basin. From this point forward, the existence of the slaveocracy concretized in Northern minds.

How they were different:

Madison was one of the greatest political theorists in the nation's history. Had he never served as POTUS, he might have enjoyed a status akin to that of Benjamin Franklin. Madison penned much of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, and the Virginia Resolution opposing the Alien and Sedition Acts. He and Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party. Polk was a schemer, not a theorist.

Madison followed Jefferson's footsteps in expanding federalism in ways that countered stated beliefs in states' rights. He allowed the re-charting of the Bank of the United States because Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin convinced him it was necessary. He also used federal power to (try to) prevent white settlers from encroaching on Indian lands in the western Appalachians. He even used his power tyrannically on at least one occasion by refusing to dismiss the incompetent James Wilkinson from military command in Louisiana Territory because it was politically expedient to keep Wilkinson.

Polk kept his pledge not to seek a second term, but probably wouldn't have gotten one! He did, however, create the Department of the Interior and promised New Granada (Columbia) that the U.S. would stay out of Latin America. Did he mean it? Historians aren't sure.

Madison enjoyed a long retirement. Polk, though only 49 when he became president, was exhausted by the presidency and died three months after leaving office.


Do we rate a person's entire career, or just time in office?  Do we value forceful leadership in time of war and celebrate the expansion of the nation, or do we ask if the war should have been fought in the first place? Do we evaluate how a person uses presidential power, or how well they mesh within the entire system of American democracy? Do we value forthright action or truthfulness?

Currently, scholars rank Madison # 12 and Polk #10. I couldn't disagree more. First, Madison was a far better president than Polk and should be ranked above him. Second, Polk's high status reflects a tendency of past historians to romanticize the South. Polk is among those presidents directly responsible for the Civil War. Consider: no Texas annexation or manufactured crisis, no Mexican War. Perhaps the United States would have purchased lands from Mexico in the future, but without Polk's actions, there would have been no California gold rush, no Compromise of 1850, no need to organize territories for a transcontinental railroad, therefore no Kansas-Nebraska Act.  It would be facile to say that the Civil War would have been avoided–the inherent immorality of slavery remained. But without Polk, who linked slavery and Manifest Destiny, slavery might have been become as a dying institution instead of a robust one. The War of 1812 was stupid; the Mexican War was immoral.

With Madison, though, we must separate theorist from president. After all, few would evaluate Lyndon Johnson without reference to Vietnam. In my view, it's to the middle of the pack for both Madison and Polk.


Loving is a (Too) Quiet Look at a Pathbreaking Precedent

LOVING  (2016)
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Focus features, 123 minutes, PG-13
* * *

Loving is a hard movie to review. On one hand, it focuses on the couple at the center of one of the most important legal decisions in American history: the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned anti-miscegenation laws and paved the way for marriage freedom for all, including same-sex unions. On the other hand, the film's protagonists are so ordinary that it's hard to connect them to the legal precedent that bears their name. Director Jeff Nichols has the problem of trying to make an audience care about a couple with all the charisma of the back-country Virginia dirt from whence they sprang. He doesn't entirely succeed.  

For those unfamiliar with the case, Richard Loving (1933-75) and Mildred Jeter (1939-2008) grew up in hardscrabble Caroline County, Virginia. Although he was white and Mildred was mixed race (Indian, black, white), they came of age in a part of Virginia where poor whites such as the Lovings interacted easily with people of color–a place where a shared rural values and lack of economic opportunity often trumped race. Richard and Mildred were childhood sweethearts even before they journeyed to the District of Columbia to marry on June 12, 1958. Mildred was, by then, heavily pregnant with their first child. Had they stayed in Washington, you'd have never heard of them. Instead, they returned to Virginia. In the middle of the night, the police broke into their bedroom and arrested them for violating Virginia's 1924 Racial Integrity Act. When Richard pointed to their framed marriage certificate, he was told, "That's no good here." The Lovings were jailed, pleaded guilty to violating the law, and were banished from the state for 25 years with the understanding they'd be imprisoned if they were caught cohabiting or being together within Virginia's borders. The film follows their exile to Washington, where they had two more children; their attempts to live undetected in Virginia; and the circumstances that ultimately landed their case before the SCOTUS.

The viewer's dilemma is obvious from the start: the Lovings—aside from their racial difference–practically define the term "ordinary." They were rudimentarily educated, soft-spoken, and unremarkable people–he a bricklayer and she a homemaker. Their slice of Virginia was one where folks worked on and raced cars, drank in roadhouse bars, and picked tobacco. Director Nichols captures the vibe of a 1950s world in which few people challenged authority, hence we watch Richard seethe at their arrest, but not question it. Not that doing so was in character; his manner was as slow as that of the countryside. Appreciating this film requires that you surrender to its languid pace. Indeed, one of the more powerful points the film makes is that the Lovings were so unexceptional that one wonders why Virginia would want to bother two such harmless individuals. The pacing, though, is also the film's major problem. Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a man of so few words that the film is nearly silent when he's on camera. Mildred (Ruth Negga) is a step up on the laconic scale, but it's a very small skyward stride. We quickly get the idea that the prosecutors are morally challenged. Folks such as the Lovings can only be viewed as threats when privacy rights take a backseat to artificially constructed (and bigoted) views of purity and propriety. That's an important lesson, but it still leaves us with passive protagonists who come off as victims lacking agency.

I can understand why Nichols wouldn't want to make another courtroom saga, but the focus on the Lovings as a couple lacks the dramatic sparks of said filmed legal battles. Nichols pushes the court case so far into the background that the most compelling part of it is the Lovings' inability to comprehend the legal system. It doesn't help that Nichols reduces the ACLU's role to something more akin to a cartoon than as a champion of civil rights. Left on the table are options that might have been more interesting on the screen. Why, we wonder, was there so little overt racism in Caroline County when other parts of the South are aflame? Is that accurate, or was intolerance there simply a can of worms Nichols didn't wish to open? We don't even know how Richard perceived race. There is a short scene in which he appears to have never given it much thought, but it's hard to imagine that even a man as unreflective as he could reduce race to a simple, "I love my wife" statement. There's also a matter of the biggest liberty taken in the film, the decision to distill the tension to black and white terms. Although biographical details of Mildred remain scant, she emphasized her Rappahannock and Cherokee roots and identified as Native American, not black. That didn't matter under Virginia law, but tinkering with Mildred's self-identification seems more a nod to contemporary sociology than to historical accuracy–to say nothing of being reductionist and robbing the film of an opportunity to discuss the central fictiveness of race.

In my view, the best way to enjoy this film is to lower your expectations and think of it more as quiet portrait of injustice rather than a drama. Remember that the Lovings were legally married for nearly a decade and still underwent travails. If the film makes you think more deeply about identity, privacy, fairness, and tolerance, it will have been two hours well spent. Just don't expect to lose your socks over visuals or dynamic performances. That's no rap on Edgerton or Negga. Not even actors as fine as they can make a Fiat 500 roar like a Ferrari.

Rob Weir

Endorsements for 2016 Election

Vote on November 8:
Off-centerviews Endorsements

Tuesday November 8 is Election Day, even though Donald Trump recently told a group of his supporters it's November 28. I hope they don't bother to show up until then!

President: There is only one clear choice: Not Trump! Hillary Clinton remains problematic in my mind. Despite what her admirers say, she's a triangulator, not a liberal; a free trader, not a friend of working people; a political insider, not a reformer; more of an interventionist than a mediator; and–in a nicer way–an egoist akin to Trump. But here's what she's not: crazy, lazy, crooked, irresponsible, crude, misogynist, racist, or stupid. Trump is all of those things–the biggest con man since Marjoe.

Still, I find it inherently undemocratic that Clinton supporters tell you that must vote for her. Trump is a mad man and can't be supported, but if you simply can't vote for Clinton, don't stay at home. First, another non-endorsement: Don't vote for Jill Stein. I flirted with the Green Party, but Stein's running mate, Ajamu Baraka, is as bad as Trump; he's anti-Israel, has penned an essay in a book written by a Holocaust denier, partially condoned Muslim French terrorists, admires Che Guevara, and has expressed other views bordering on anti-Antisemitism. He vigorously parses and backpedals on these, but Stein showed poor judgment in choosing Baraka, which tells me the Green Party needs a new national face. 

Your options:

            1. If you lean right, vote the Libertarian Johnson-Weld ticket. I can't do that because I find the Libertarians too wacky on too many points, but a Libertarian vote is definitely an anti-Trump vote.
            2. Write-in whomever you'd prefer. Many on the left will write in the name Bernard Sanders. Mainstream Republicans have a plethora of choices: Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Dennis Kucinich…. May I respectfully ask you refrain from Ted Cruz, Donald Trump with a brain and an apocalyptic worldview?

3. In some states, none of the above is an option; others consider it a spoiled ballot. Check before using that option, but I know of no states that disqualify a ballot in which the voter simply makes no choice at all in a given race. I often use that option for local races in which I have no opinion about the candidates.

Massachusetts Ballot Issues:

If you live in the Bay State, four initiatives appear on the ballot. These are voter-generated and (in theory at least) require state government action regardless of what legislators think of them.

No on Question 1: Slots

It would allow the Gaming Commission to issue additional slots licenses. My God! Massachusetts hasn't even opened its first casino—four have been authorized—and already Mafia dons (sorry, lobbyists) are trying to expand legalized gambling. How about waiting to see if gambling is an economic boon or the cork removed from the Social Problems bottle before diving in deeper?

No on Question 2: Charter Schools

This would allow the state to open a dozen new charter schools per year. I urge a "no" vote and am only sorry the initiative doesn't authorize dismantling the ones already open.

Let me get personal. I am a friend of three separate couples who enrolled their children in Montessori schools, which are not charters. In each case, their kids loved Montessori but ultimately had to leave because the cost was too high. No one suggests Montessori should become "charter" schools, though their educational techniques are far more innovative than those you'll find in charters. Question Two should be defeated because it's unfair. No advocate can show me why a charter focusing on performing arts, enriched math, language immersion, or any 'hook' ought to take priority over other values. Indeed, Massachusetts pioneered in determining that parochial and other religious education could not be supported by taxpayer money. Why not? What gives liberal educational reformers the right to privilege their worldview? Unfair is unfair.

Charter advocates--backed by outside money--argue they take no money from public schools because they are public schools. What a load of sophist twaddle! This is analogous to saying that buying a sailboat won't hurt the family budget because it's a family sailboat. School budgets are not infinite. Every charter school requires teachers, supplies, and buildings. If you hire a new charter school music teacher for $45,000, you can bet your paycheck there's a traditional elementary school in your district that won't get $45k it needs. And so on.

Public schools are not supposed to specialize. The entire idea behind public education is to ground students in the rudiments needed to be educated and responsible citizens. By statute, only vocational training, opportunities for special needs students, and talented and gifted programs are mandated. In each case, a district can provide these, or send tuition to an adjacent district to meet those requirements. Specialization? Nope! Colleges do that. If you want to jump-start the process, there's an option: private education. Charters cheat the masses. They are vouchers through the back door.

Yes on Question Three: Ending Animal Confinement

This initiative would end many factory-farming practices and require more humane treatment of animals by ending nightmarish practices such as chickens confined to pens in which they can't move; or veal cattle chained to small huts. I confess to having a soft spot for critters but—damn–it's just not right to brutalize animals.

My grandparents were farmers for whom killing animals was an integral part of their livelihood. They made certain, though, that creatures had space, food, air, water and a decent quality of life for as long as they lived. So who is against Question Three? Simple: Agra-business. This one is not about family farms; it's about whether or not Big-Ag can dominate the market through assembly-line farming. A word of caution to liberals and animal sentimentalists: Don't kid yourselves; food prices will rise if this is passed. Vote yes because it's the right thing to do, not because it's in your self-interest.

Yes on Question 4: Legalization of Marijuana

This is a no-brainer. As the offspring of an alcoholic household, I've never been a pothead, so I've no dog in this hunt. That said, we need to put aside all the war-on-drugs nonsense. Run up the white flag: the war was lost decades ago. Pot use today is higher than it was in the groovy Sixties. It's this simple: if nothing we've tried in the past 60 years has worked, it won't work in the next 60 either. 

A new law would restrict sales to those 21 or older—you know, the same ones who can legally buy alcohol, cigarettes, and guns, so spare me hand wringing about saving kids. Can those pseudo-scientific studies about pot's harmful medical effects on developing brains. Even if we do nothing, about 8% of those aged 12 to 17 will be regular users, as will a quarter of those 18 to 25

Again, the Massachusetts bill would restrict sales to those 21 and up. This means the only groups with a vested interest in defeating Question 4 are organized crime, middlemen smugglers, and street pushers. All three will be busted if linked to distributing wares to underage buyers (and with roughly the same ineffectiveness as now). Free those jailed for pot. Collect the tax revenues (which will probably be bigger than those from casinos). The war is over. Peace!    


James Monroe versus Zachary Taylor: Pairing Presidents

James Monroe versus Zachary Taylor:
Pairing Presidents XX

James Monroe (1817-25) and Zachary Taylor (March 1849-July 1850) present interpretive challenges. Other than being fellow Virginians, the cerebral Monroe and the rough-and-tough military man Taylor seem ill matched. Moreover, Taylor's short time in office–just over 15 months–leads some presidential scholars to resist making judgments about him. I offer them together because historians often ponder turning points–potential pivots in which what was or wasn't done determined the course of the future.

How they are similar:

James Monroe
We have now witnessed a parade of antebellum presidents who did nothing about the vexing issue of slavery. For good or ill, James Monroe actually addressed the issue. He was no humanitarian; Monroe owned about 75 slaves on his Oak Hill plantation and many of them were very poorly treated. Monroe wasn't personally a Simon Legree—he was an absentee landowner, a status that gave overseers and managers free reign. He was, however, open to charges of hypocrisy; like Thomas Jefferson, he expressed distaste for the very institution of slavery while benefitting from chattel labor. If there is a mediating factor it's this: many of the earliest abolitionists were slaveholders. Men such as Jefferson and Monroe realized the contradiction, but simultaneously longed for a day in which new systems of labor would render slavery unnecessary. Monroe did not think blacks and whites were equal, but he did not oppose emancipation. In fact, the African colony of Liberia was established as a homeland for freed slaves; its capital to this day bears his name: Monrovia.

As president, Monroe did not have the luxury of looking to the future. The 1819 statehood petition of Missouri presented a dilemma. Slavery was a dying institution in the North and an informal demarcation known as the Mason-Dixon Line pretty much divided free from slave states. Few realize that this boundary was never meant to mark any sort of regional border—it was a late (1767) Colonial surveyors' line that settled boundary disputes between the colonies of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Custom determined that the Mason-Dixon Line divided the North from the South—until Missouri Territory sought to join the Union as a slave state, though parts of Missouri lay north of free states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois–the latter two of which had only been states since 1816 and 1818 respectively. Missouri, if admitted, would become the 23rd state and give slaveholders a 12-11 advantage. Northerners cried foul and their protest threatened to ruin national unity. The Monroe administration hammered out the Missouri Compromise of 1820 in which land was taken from Massachusetts to create the new free state of Maine, thereby creating a 12-12 balance. It also gave Missouri a one-time exception and established that slavery could not exist in future territories north of Missouri's southern border of 36º 30' of north latitude.

Zachary Taylor
The Missouri Compromise established that slavery could be discussed and negotiated, but Taylor soon discovered the limitations of quick fixes. The culprit was gold. Ever hear of the 49ers? The 1848 discovery of gold in California touched off such a wave of migration into the territory that it qualified for statehood within a single year. Problem: most of California was south of 36º 30' but the majority of Californians opposed slavery. Taylor's bright idea—which might have worked–was to grant California statehood without first organizing it as an official territory, a deft technicality that would have kept the Missouri Compromise intact. His advice was ignored and a political brouhaha ensued that led to the Compromise of 1850. It was a complex set of five separate bills that generated such animosity that scholars see it as a turning point that inflamed sectionalism and, eleven years later, led to civil war. Its most controversial provisions allowed for the possibility of popular sovereignty in future territories (which would have rendered moot the Missouri Compromise) and the passage of a strong Fugitive Slave Act. Uncle Tom's Cabin was written in direct response to the second and acts of civil disobedience in defiance proliferated in the North.

Taylor's cold solace was that he didn't live to see it; the Compromise of 1850 was led by Henry Clay and put into effect by Taylor's successor, the bumbling Millard Fillmore. Taylor is also associated with another lost moment. Although he owned slaves–and was the last elected president to do so–he opposed the expansion of slavery into existing or future territories. He was troubled by Venezuelan Narcisco López's attempt to conquer Cuba and the dreams of slaveholders of adding it to the Union. Taylor went on to denounce all such efforts (filibustering). Would Taylor have rejected the Compromise of 1850? How would history have played out if the possibility of expanding slavery were taken off the table?  

Monroe could have used more restrictions on his power and Taylor could have used fewer. Missouri was one of just two bumps in an otherwise tranquil two terms for Monroe—the other being Congressional disapproval of an internal improvements plan that Congressmen actually liked, but found too expensive. Monroe pretty much got everything else he wanted, including dispatching Gen. Andrew Jackson off to fight the Seminoles, a treaty with Spain (Adams-Onis) to acquire Florida, and several other pet projects. This is because he faced virtually no opposition in Congress. The War of 1812 was initially unpopular, but Jackson's meaningless victory in the Battle of New Orleans unleashed a wave of nationalism that neutered the Federalists and led to their ultimate collapse. Monroe and his predecessor James Madison faced so little opposition that historians routinely label the period between 1815 and 1824 the Era of Good Feelings.

Another pivot. In 1823, Monroe proclaimed the famed Monroe Doctrine, which asserted the entire Western hemisphere as an American sphere of influence and warned European powers against future meddling in Latin and South America. It was an audacious and unenforceable bit of swagger for a third-rate power such as the United States in 1823, but even a casual look at history reveals how Monroe's principles altered America's future, to say nothing of those many nations eventually drawn into what was essentially a hemispheric satellite relationship with the United States. What if Monroe had faced strong opposition that forced him to back down from his reckless proclamation? 

By contrast, Taylor, a Whig, faced Democratic opposition at every turn. He was, therefore, unable to settle a border dispute between Texas and New Mexico Territory, nor did he even dare broach the issue of Utah statehood at a time in which most Congressmen saw Mormons as only slightly less menacing than Indians. Democrats so despised Taylor that legend holds he died from a poison plot devised by Southern slaveholders. (Cholera was the likely cause and much of his Cabinet also grew gravely ill from it. Such is one of many follies associated with building the Capitol upon a malarial swamp!)

For the record, Monroe's Era of Good Feelings ended in 1824, when the Democratic-Republicans couldn't play by their own rules. Instead agreeing upon a single candidate in an election where they faced no opposition, five men declared for the presidency: Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, William Crawford, and John Quincy Adams, the latter three who had been in Monroe's Cabinet. Jackson won the popular vote, but Clay hated him and shifted his electoral votes to Adams. Date the eventual emergence of the second party system to this disputed election and the rise of the Whig Party that Taylor represented. Poor Whigs. They elected two presidents, William Henry Harrison and Taylor. Both died in office and collectively served about 16 months in the White House!

How they were different:

Call it silk versus steel. Monroe was a patrician intellectual who took part of the American Revolution. His background also included serving as governor of Virginia, as a U.S. Senator, as ambassador to both France and Great Britain, and as Secretary of State and Secretary of War. Taylor spent much of his pre-White House time in a tent. He led troops in he War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and the Mexican War. He was more comfortable around soldiers than with politicians.

As noted, Monroe enjoyed cordial relations with Congress. Taylor experienced what we today would call "gridlock."


Historians rank Monroe a respectable # 16, which seems about right, though it might be mildly inflated by what occurred in the future, not during his presidency. Those willing to rate Taylor give him low marks: #35 currently. This strikes me as off the mark. He was hardly to blame for the poor behavior of Congress, and he might have been leaning on the right side of history in recognizing that slavery and territorial expansion should be made mutually exclusive. The Compromise of 1850 proved inflammatory, but there's no proof that Taylor would have approved of it. His overall résumé was thin, but his time in office was too brief to expect more. I see Taylor as more middle of the pack; there were certainly more than seven presidents worse than he. 

Rob Weir


Brett Wiscons, Jonny 8Track, Ingrid Michaelson, Anna & Elizabeth, Cash Wilson

More New Music

Brett Wiscons is an Indiana-raised musician who grew up influenced by everything from Sade to The Eagles and Hootie & the Blowfish. These influences help explain his self-admitted love of strong melodies. His third LP—and he also has two EPs–The Heineken Sessions (MAD Diamond Entertainment) falls in that loose category known as "Americana," that's a mix of rock, acoustic folk, and country. Many of the songs are about grabbing onto love when you find it. He kicks off with a real crowd-pleaser, "Sarazona" with buzzy guitar, a great bass groove, loads of hooks, and an infectious tune. He pays homage to his adolescence and the phenomenon on "Indiana Summer," which includes a clever line about how we all acquire some lessons and priorities along the way: Always try to be the engine/But I'm somehow the caboose" Then there was you– Wiscon does a great job of mixing styles. "Side Stage" has raw, grungy edges that sound as if they originated well to the south of Indiana; "Sophia's Winery" is in hand-clapping Dixieland party mode; and "Sooner or Later" features a bit of sashay that blends rolling organ notes into a melody that's at once sweet and soulful, with bright riffs and hooks running throughout. "Don't Be the One" is simply a terrific song with chart potential. One caveat: that song is on the album twice, once as a power pop duet with Anne Balbo and again as an acoustic cover. The second is miles better–Balbo sounds too much like she's channeling Michael Jackson. 

Jonny 8Track is an English bloke who plays acoustic guitar and rock-style drums. He counts among his influences everyone from Lou Reed and Keith Moon to indie/garage bands such as The The, The Shins, and Detroit Cobras. His eponymous EP on Austin's Chicken Ranch Records shows how he brings those strands together. He doesn't credit this, but a song like "Thirty Three RPM" also exudes skiffle influence—not just in its homage to vinyl LPs, but also in its finger snapping coolness and its evocation of a bygone era. There's a lot going on in just a few tracks. "White Lie" is raw and edgy like folked-out punk, but you might think him a sunshine pop artist on "All America Taught Me," unless you pay attention to lyrics such as "I wish I were somewhere else" and realize it won't be any nationalist's campaign song in the near future. Intriguing stuff that feels like yesterday is today's tomorrow. 

Ingrid Michaelson is one of the hottest singers in America these days. Her Hell No Tour is playing to packed houses and there's a CD out with some of its highlights. If you don't know her yet, you probably will soon. Her repertoire is a pop/folk/rock hybrid and she's quirky enough to invoke Bjork comparisons. Tween, teen, and young adult women love her like she's The Beatles with breasts, and why not? Her insouciance and strong-woman messages make her a good role model. Check out her 2008 hit "Be Ok," with its "I just wanna be ok" mantra hook and zipper song structure that makes it an infinitely adaptable song. She works hard at avoiding boxes. If you hear a song like "Weak" you begin to think "folk rock and slick as hell," but it has so much verve and attitude you just go with it. Then she further upsets expectations with a song like the piano-based "Turning Out" that moves between thick and soupy to slow and tender. Or one like "Home" that churns her voice through an echo chamber until it's like a bell ringing in a canyon; or the "The Lotto," a hand jive pop gospel mélange. The indie pop band AJR appears on several tracks. Ingrid Michaelson? Hell yes!

If you'd rather hear music stripped to the bone, try Anna and Elizabeth, whose Sun to Sun is evocative of records folks like Mike Seeger and Hazel Dickens used to make–songs of uncertain origin that thrived in the hills and hollows. Anna Roberts-Gevalt plays guitar and fiddle; Elizabeth LaPrelle the banjo, but all of the instrumentation is sparse, as befits material drawn from the public domain and sung by contrasting/harmonizing voices: one sharp and twangy, the second smoother. The title track is a variant of "Mule Skinner Blues" and probably originated as a slave song. "Old Kimball" is a textbook  case of the folk process, a song that first surfaced as a blues song, "Skew Bald," mutated into "Old Kimball," and reappeared as the folk/pop "Stewball." And if you like equine-themed material, there's also "Whole Heap of Little Horses," a lullaby that's been done by everyone from The Chieftains to Patty Griffin. Check out their take on "When I Was a Little Girl," which was once part of Nina Simone's repertoire. After all, who doesn't love a song about a plague victim? 
Anna and Elizabeth will appear at the Ashfield (MA) Congregational Church on November 5.

The Bare, an EP by Cash Wilson, reminds me of an early Neil Young project, a comment not intended to suggest he's derivative. Okay, he does have a song titled "River," but it's nothing like Neil's. But he does sing in high, pained tones with hints of husk, nasality and quaver. He also sports a country/folk repertoire, and plays his acoustic guitar as if it's a lead electric. The album title refers to the fact that most of it is just voice and guitar, but Wilson performs with enough gusto that the Bare seldom feels spare. Wilson lives in Nashville and hails from Kentucky, but has apparently spent some time in North Carolina; he's the latest artist to pen a Tarheel song ("Carolina"). I admired the way Wilson frames a song. On "Stones Throw" he uses energetic strums and percussive beats to color his voice and heighten drama for a song about a relationship unwinding in slo-mo. Wilson doesn't seem to be touring at present, but this EP is worth checking out.