The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

Month: December 2008

George Bailey’s Wasted Life

I first saw Director Frank Capra‘s It‘s a Wonderful Life (1946) years ago in New York City, in one of the city’s many “revival“ theaters that featured “oldies,” or movies made before 1965. It was in the Thalia Theater, a small, run-down but comfortable, smoker-friendly Art Deco theater on the Upper West Side. Right around the corner, on Broadway, was the palatial New Yorker Theater, which also featured “oldies,” in which I also educated myself in the art of movie-making and story-telling.

I remember not liking It’s a Wonderful Life (IAWL) that first time, and my animus for it grew every time I saw it after that, chiefly because the life of George Bailey, the anti-hero, was not my life. George, played by Jimmy Stewart, had grand ambitions, but surrendered them to the needs of others. I had grand ambitions, as well, but never surrendered them. For all the American character of the film, I regarded it as distinctly anti-American.

For years I toyed with the idea of writing an answer (or a literary antidote) to IAWL, just as I would someday actually write a literary answer to Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel, The Maltese Falcon (as well as to the Humphrey Bogart film of it). But I had other literary projects to tackle, and an answer to Capra’s film remained far, far in the rear of my priorities, even though his postwar film was becoming something of a cultural “icon” and was being hailed by critics an American “classic.”

In a manner of speaking, Wendell Jamieson beat me to the idea in The New York Times, in his December 18, 2008 article, “Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life.” In it, although he still confesses a fondness for the film, Jamieson projects an alternative destiny for Bedford Falls, George’s home town.

For those who are not familiar with the story, it is about the life of George Bailey, who wishes to become an architect or engineer and build skyscrapers and bridges and planned cities and the like. As a young man, every time he is about to go off to college or see the world beyond Bedford Falls, something happens to keep him home. After his father’s death, he feels obligated to take over the Bailey Building and Loan Association, and so winds up helping the “little people” buy their own homes (echoes of the recent “bailout“ crisis will remain unspoken here). He never leaves town. He is blind-sided by his feckless brother Harry, he marries a calculating, ambition-killing woman (presaging Lillian Rearden from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged) played by Donna Reed, has children, lives in a drafty mansion, and becomes a pillar of Bedford Falls society not because he has accomplished anything, but rather because he is so selfless. He has become a walking vehicle of Kantian maxims.

Then, on Christmas Eve and after VE Day, his chronically sodden Uncle Billy, who also works for the building and loan, misplaces an $8,000 deposit, which is handily snatched up by the “evil” town banker, Henry F. Potter, George’s financial nemesis who wants to “own“ the town. George cannot cover the loss, of course, and never learns who stole the money. But Potter, who is on the building and loan’s board of directors, initiates criminal charges against him. Facing scandal and prison, George snaps, chews out Uncle Billy, his wife, his kids, and others, and contemplates suicide. Then an angel is sent to teach George a lesson. The angel, played as a kind of half-wit, shows George what would have happened to Bedford Falls had he never been born, granting him that wish in answer to a tossed off remark by George to that effect.

Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, a kind of upstate New York Las Vegas before Vegas was not much more than a literal desert watering hole, alive with gambling and dance halls and raucous taverns. His friends are impoverished by Potter, one of them, a cop, tries to shoot him, his mother doesn’t know him, the town flirt becomes a prostitute, and his wife a spinster working in the town library. George, of course, learns the lesson and is brought back to the present, grateful and full of Christmas cheer. He knows now that he “made a difference” in others’ lives by abandoning his ambition. He reunites with his family, and the whole town comes to his rescue by chipping in to cover the $8,000 loss. He is hailed by his war-hero brother as the “richest man in town” — “rich” in all his friends.

What astounded me about Jamieson’s article is that he found Pottersville a far more interesting and exciting place to live than sleepy, dull Bedford Falls. “…Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.” Thriving, that is, as a competitor of Saratoga Springs, a resort and horse-racing town not very far away from fictive Bedford Falls. “What a grim thought,” Jamieson asks in his article. “Had George Bailey never been born, the people in his town might very well be better off today.”

Jamieson also points out that, after consulting with a county district attorney, George still would have been liable for the $8,000 larceny, regardless of how he made restitution to the building and loan. “I mean, if someone robs a bank, and then gives the money back, that person still robbed the bank, right?”

Right. And Teddy Kennedy should have served time for involuntary manslaughter, and both of the Clintons should have donned prison jump suits for their many and various episodes of malfeasance.

Bosley Crowther, in his review of IAWL for The New York Times on December 23, 1946, was not so forgiving or imaginative. He liked certain aspects of the film, and credited the principal cast for its performance, but “Lionel Barrymore’s banker [Potter] is almost a caricature, and Henry Travers’ ‘heavenly messenger’ [Clarence the angel] is a little too sticky for our taste.” Crowther expresses his main objection:

“Indeed, the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it — its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra’s nice people are charming, his small town is quite beguiling and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.”

To Crowther, IAWL wasn’t “realistic” or “naturalistic” enough. Apparently, the theme and moral of the story were too pat, too syrupy, too simplistic, too predictable, and not convincingly delivered. But, then, any story in which an angel appears and determines the course of events cannot be at all realistic. One could also say that about any “happy ending” predicated on the triumph of altruism and selflessness, except in such instances as the fate of Catherine Halsey, Ellsworth Toohey‘s niece in The Fountainhead, and then it is a tragedy. And, like Jamieson, he does not question the altruist moral of the story, but accepts it as an unquestionable measure of the good. While Crowther found the film “emotionally gratifying,” it didn’t “fill the hungry paunch.” Jamieson, on the other hand, concludes his review by recounting his first viewing of the film in 1981:

“Fifteen years old and imagining myself an angry young man, I got all choked up. And I still do.”

The altruistic moral of the story is as uncontroversial to Crowther and Jamieson as having cream with one’s coffee: Others have a moral claim on one’s life; to do the “right thing” is to “give back” to others, to the community, to society, to the nation, now called volunteerism or community service. I regard IAWL as anti-American because it touts the virtue of selflessness, when being free to pursue one’s ambitions without any obligation to serve one’s fellow men was the implied moral cornerstone of this country’s founding.

Altruism is a tenacious, poisonous morality, even for those who do leave their own Bedford Falls to pursue their ambition. Look at billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who are now devoting their lives and fortunes to “giving back” in the best George Bailey tradition. It is penance for being successful, and an unconscionable crime. Crowther was wrong in his estimate of the film. A nagging compulsion to serve the public remains the “average reality” in too many Americans today, just as it was in his time.

Its journey as a non-blockbuster in 1946 to its current status as a cultural icon could serve as a measure of the continuing loss of the country‘s sense of life and the fading of its vision as a nation of selfish, non-sacrificing, benevolent individuals. In 1990, IAWL was deemed by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry.” It was nominated for five Oscars but won none, being buried by The Best Years of Our Lives, released also in 1946, and which featured no angels but touted selflessness and sacrifice in a more “realistic” manner. It won seven Oscars. The American Film Institute rated IAWL third only to The Lord of the Rings in the fantasy genre, but definitely ensconced in the top 100 American films.

Ayn Rand, who testified before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1947 about the Communist influence in Hollywood, wished to testify against The Best Years of Our Lives, but was only given a chance to speak about Song of Russia. What she would have said to the committee appears in Journals of Ayn Rand.* Song of Russia was an obvious wartime propaganda vehicle, but The Best Years of Our Lives was a film about the lives of servicemen returning from the war. Rand considered its collectivist “message” far more insidious and effective than that of Song of Russia.

“Nobody has ever been endangered by being offered poison in a bottle bearing a label with a skull-and-crossbones. Poison is usually offered in a glass of the best wine — or, modern version, in a quart of the milk of human kindness.”

That criticism could just as well be applied to IAWL, except that instead of the milk of human kindness, its poison was offered in a tall glass of holiday eggnog. Interestingly, Rand wasn’t the only person to see the communist influence in Hollywood. The FBI regarded IAWL as communist propaganda. A memo to Director J. Edgar Hoover in May 1947 begins:

“With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.

“In addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”

Frank Capra once said that IAWL “was the story I had been looking for all my life. A good man, ambitious. But so busy helping others, life seems to pass him by. Despondent. He wishes he had never been born. He gets his wish. Through the eyes of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he not been born. Wow! What an idea. The kind of idea that when I get old and sick and scared and ready to die — they’ll say, ‘He made The Greatest Gift.’”

“In a 1946 interview, Capra described the film’s theme as ‘the individual’s belief in himself,’ and that he made it to ‘combat a modern trend toward atheism.’”**

It was a belief in himself as a capable servant of society that Capra is speaking of, not anything so offensive as individualism and self-confidence. The union of and alliance between left-wing collectivism and religion, a phenomenon we are witnessing today (such as in the presidential campaign, articulated by both major candidates) began longer ago than anyone could have imagined.

Jimmy Stewart in a 1977 article summed up his own estimate of the film:

“…[T]here is nothing phenomenal about the movie itself. It’s simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life.”

My own “answer” to It’s a Wonderful Life would have seen George Bailey escaping Bedford Falls and leaving all his hapless, parasitical beneficiaries of his selflessness to their just fates. But, some years ago I realized that I could write such a story only if I made the fate of the residents of Bedford Falls the chief story line, not George Bailey’s life and achievements beyond that “one-horse town.” It was just not interesting enough a story in which to invest any creative energy.

There is, however, one specific episode in my rendition of the film I would have definitely included: George elopes with the town flirt and sex siren, Violet Bick (played by Gloria Grahame), spurning Mary Hatch. I leave the rest of the story to your imagination.

Happy New Year.

*Journals of Ayn Rand, New York: Dutton, 1997. Edited by David Harriman. Pp. 367-386 for a full accounting of her HUAC testimony and her article on The Best Years of Our Lives for the Motion Picture Alliance.
**It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book, by Stephen Cox. Nashville: Cumberland House, 2003.

Jefferson vs. Plato

If one is searching for the causes of today’s moral crisis, it is the premises of giants one should examine, not those of midgets. One should begin with Plato and graduate to his contemporary champions.

Thomas Jefferson the political philosopher is to be heeded more than is Jefferson the moral philosopher. The best thinkers of his time could not imagine a morality based on egoism and self-interest, except if it solely meant deriving personal pleasure or satisfaction from performing altruistic actions. Nor could he imagine it, even though he was intellectually acute enough to articulate the necessity of individual rights and of a government instituted to protect them.

Given the virtual monopoly that Christianity and altruism in his time exercised over the whole realm of morality, a morality of individualism could not be validated without discarding a millennium of mysticism, altruism and self-sacrifice. It was not just the doctrine and ubiquity of Christian morality that proved an insuperable barrier; I believe it was a psychological barrier, as well. Those barriers were non-existent to novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, who did perform the feat. In political philosophy, Jefferson was a radical; in moral philosophy, he was as confused as the best of his intellectual peers, resulting in his expressing not so much a conventional position on God, morality, and social relationships, as an eclectic one.

And, today, it is the moral philosophy of altruism, allied with its companion political philosophy of collectivism, that is responsible for erasing or nullifying the political philosophy of reason and capitalism bequeathed to us by giants such as Jefferson. We have also inherited their errors. This fact is no more evident than the recent presidential election. One candidate, John McCain, admired trust-busting, nature-worshipping Teddy Roosevelt and portrayed himself as his successor; Barack Obama admires Franklin D. Roosevelt, the consummate welfare-statist and hopes to emulate his policies on an even vaster scale. To the candidates, and to the news media, the Founders and their ideas were absolutely invisible.

On that note, I was startled to encounter a letter by Jefferson to John Adams (July 5, 1814) in which he criticized not only Plato but his advocates in and out of academe. Recounting his return from Poplar Forest, his other home in Virginia, he writes:

“Having more leisure there than here [Monticello] for reading, I amused myself with reading Plato’s republic. I am wrong however in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. While wading through the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? How the soi-disant Christian world indeed should have done it, is a piece of historical curiosity.”

Further on, Jefferson chides Plato‘s uncritical admirers:

“With the Moderns, I think, it is rather a matter of fashion and authority. Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and the dreams of Plato. They give the tone while at school, and few, in their after-years, have occasion to revise their college opinions. But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities, and incomprehensibilities, and what remains?”*

In this and in other letters, Jefferson is mercilessly censorious of Plato and especially of his defenders, those who in the 18th century and up to this day conferred upon the Greek the laurels of eternal wisdom and indeed the status of sainthood.

“In truth, he is one of the race of genuine Sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly by the adoption and incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen thro’ a mist, can be defined neither in form or dimension. Yet this which should have consigned him to early oblivion really procured him immortality of fame and reverence.”

Jefferson then makes a tentative connection between Plato’s doctrines and those of Christianity, but does not pursue it beyond some criticisms of the Church. He criticizes the established Church (and by implication, most organized churches) but does not delve very deeply into why theologians found Plato’s thoughts attractive and useful. He does not explore the possibility that perhaps it was Platonism that gave substance to Christian doctrine and made possible Christianity.

“The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ leveled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment to their order, and introduce it to profit, power and preeminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.”

That is a fair distillation and indictment of the history of the Catholic Church, and of all sects and denominations that followed its de-politicization in Europe and the various violent and pacific schisms before, during and after the Enlightenment. In contradistinction to Plato’s view of man, Jefferson concurred with Aristotle’s eudaimonia, or the rational pursuit of happiness by men, entailing integrity, courage, and honesty, and including non-sacrificial friendships.

I do not pretend to be a Biblical scholar, but my own readings on the history of Christianity (which only lately included Christopher Hitchens and his company of literary atheists) led me to conclude that the Bible was a work-in-progress for about one and a half millennia, with unknown, tongue-in-cheek theologians cadging elements from Judaism and Greek mythology, embellishing the life of Christ in The Gospels by adding the Virgin Birth, miracles, the Resurrection, and so on, episodes that defied epistemology and metaphysics. Jefferson was a man who credited the evidence of his senses to comprehend reality, and despised clerics who brow-beat their congregations into belief and obedience with hocus-pocus sermons on the unknowability of God and his purposes, except through unreasoning faith. Rationality has always been an unwelcome auditor of any established creed or religion.

The homilies of Jesus, he is saying, easily understood by the common mind — and which one could accept or reject without much argument — did not require a priesthood or an organization to propagate them. Professional mystics, being confidence men, could not profit by exploiting mere homilies. They had to fabricate an elaborate, reason-resistant system of mysticism, and of whose ‘secrets” and “mysteries” they were the Platonic “guardians,“ thus guaranteeing their constant employment by the unthinking, the credulous and the gullible. So they borrowed liberally from Plato and Judaism (and perhaps from a few other semi-rational Greek thinkers) to weave an impenetrable doctrine. They turned simple “faith” into a spiritual pyramid scheme — into “nonsense that can never be explained.”

Jefferson might have added in his letter to Adams that Christian priests and theologians projected God, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, the Trinity, and angels, among other extrasensory manifestations, as “semblances of objects,” half-seen through the mists of doctrine, and were things that existed in another dimension as manifestations of Plato’s “Forms.”

It is interesting to note also that Islam, over a period of centuries, as it was congealing into a rigid, no-questions-permitted theology (and one far less “Sophisticated” than Christianity), borrowed liberally from Judaism, the Greeks, from Christian doctrines, and doubtless from whatever pagan creeds Mohammed’s warrior/missionaries wiped out in Arabia. From where I sit, Islam retained Jehovah or Yahweh, the unpredictable, psychopathic deity of the Hebrew and Christian Old Testament (at the time, very likely the only Testament), and redubbed him Allah. The Koran and other associated Islamic holy texts underwent much the same ad libitum evolution as the Bible, with Mohammed‘s life subjected to the same grandiose and incredible embellishment as Christ‘s. The historical Christ promulgated pacifism and universal “love” and “tolerance’: the historical Mohammed was a career butcher who demanded universal submission to Islam.

I mention Islam here only because it is as much a nemesis now as is Western-style statism or collectivism. But, I digress. What is the relationship between Platonism and modern politics, or more specifically, between Platonism and tyranny? Why didn’t Jefferson see that relationship? Because, when it came to that branch of inquiry, he was not radical. As he could not imagine a morality based on a non-altruistic, rational selfishness, he could not imagine one that did not include God. Here are some of his remarks on the “moral sense” in a letter to Thomas Law of June 1814:

“If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” **

What that foundation might have been tested Jefferson’s reasoning, and he failed. He resorted to citing what others equally wrong had said, such as French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius’s contention that a “moral sense” of the altruistic good could be inculcated in all men through education.

Interestingly, in that same letter, Jefferson dwells on egoism.

“Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, objection requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue, leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others…..” [Italics Jefferson’s]

Again, it required a mind, specifically, Ayn Rand’s, that was not shackled by altruism , nor a prisoner of intrinsicism, nor hobbled by logical fallacies to assert that selfishness indeed must be a virtue if men are to own their own lives and live free of duty to others. Jefferson never denied, and neither did his intellectual mentor, John Locke, that men owned their own lives, but, like Locke, he left unchallenged the implication that selflessness and self-sacrifice were the “natural,” intrinsic, or “instinctual” enemies of egoism, bestowed on men by God, and thus were ineffaceably “moral.”

Why could not Jefferson have detected his own errors? Because he was as much a victim of his unchecked premises as anyone else of his time. He was Aristotelian in his politics, but not in his morality. Leonard Peikoff, in The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (1982), gives the best explanation:

“The tragedy of the West…lies in the fact that the seeds of Platonism had been firmly embedded in philosophy almost from its beginning, and had been growing steadily through the post-Renaissance period. Thus, while the revolutionary achievements inspired by Aristotelianism were reshaping the life of the West, an intellectual counterrevolution was at work, gradually gaining momentum. A succession of thinkers was striving to reverse the Aristotelian trend and to resurrect the basic principles of Platonism.”***

Peikoff then explicates Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and moves on to Georg W.F. Hegel (1770-1830). As he demonstrates so clearly, Kant developed his philosophy in order to save religion from the Enlightenment; Hegel, his successor, developed his in order to advocate the State as God and save it from freedom. And whether one is discussing Plato, Kant or Hegel, the connection between the notion that the State is all, and the notion that individuals are interchangeable manqués and subsumed under the State who owe their existence and allegiance to it, is one which Jefferson and his peers could not make. Their altruistic premises, combined with their intrinsic ones, confounded their most earnest inquiries.

A search of Jefferson’s published papers does not indicate that he was even aware of Kant or Hegel. There are no references to either of them in the correspondence between him and John Adams, nor in that between Jefferson and any of his other correspondents. Doubtless Kant’s Critiques were discussed in the many French salons frequented by Jefferson and Adams in France during and after America’s fight for independence, but I have been unable to find even a passing reference to them. It took a generation or so for Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophies to infiltrate and ultimately corrupt Western philosophical inquiry and become so firmly embedded, so their ignorance of Kant and Hegel is understandable.

In conclusion, and without gainsaying Jefferson’s other achievements, the Aristotelian in him may have held contempt for Plato, but in the end he was unable to refute him.

*The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (1959), pp. 430-434. In his reply, Adams concurs with Jefferson’s estimate of Plato, and is even more voluble in his criticism, seeing Plato as an original and premier enemy of liberty and property.
**Jefferson: Writings, The Library of America, “The Moral Sense,“ p. 1335-1339.
***Chapter 2, “The Totalitarian Universe,“ p. 23.

A Rookery of Rogues

Watching the federal “bailout“ story unfold over the last several months, I was struck by a unsettling familiarity with it that I could not pinpoint, a sense of déjà vu garnished with an unsavory intimacy. Then, at a recent book signing at Colonial Williamsburg, it hit me: the current bailout, complete with a cast of scoundrels, pages of fraud and lies, and an oscillating expediency exercised by the originating principals — including presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama — was no precedent at all.

It had happened long, long before in our history, in 1765, when a similar “bailout” was defeated by Patrick Henry. I had written about it in Sparrowhawk, Book Four: Empire, finished in 2001.*

It matters not which organizations or entities are the beneficiaries of a government plan to “rescue” them from their incompetence, insolvency, and government-enticed avarice: financial institutions and banks, mortgage companies, automakers, insurance companies, airlines, aircraft manufacturers….or Virginia planters. The freshman burgess from Louisa County introduced his Stamp Act Resolves in May 1765 in the House of Burgesses. The Resolves altogether comprised an affirmation of the rights of Englishmen to their liberties and to self-governance, and whose later dissemination throughout the colonies served to unite them for the first time in a common cause, which was to oppose and defy Parliamentary authority.

But Henry first tackled the “loan office” scheme that was proposed by the Tidewater gentry in the House and favored by the colony’s biggest planters.

Virginia then was the largest and richest of all the British colonies, but, within the confining system of the mercantilist system, was in no better economic and fiscal shape than the smallest and poorest. All the colonies, but especially Virginia, experienced a continuing credit crisis with British merchants and the mother country, whose laws guaranteed that the colonies would remain in constant debt. Commerce and trade with any country other than Britain was forbidden; only British-made goods could be imported into the colonies, while colonial goods, mostly tobacco, lumber, rope and raw materials could be exported only on British merchant vessels and were forced to be landed in Britain first before going on to any other country.

All these movements and transactions were taxed, as well, and charged to the credit accounts of colonial merchants, entrepreneurs and planters.

Virginia plantations were renowned in the 18th century for the size of their lands and their ostentatious beauty. Many were in effect small towns of workers and slaves. They grew tobacco, as well as wheat and other marketable crops. But virtually every plantation rode on credit and never-ending debt. In the early 1760’s, after the French and Indian War, and when they owed nearly a million pounds sterling to Britain, most Virginia planters sought a way out of these straits and colluded with several powerful men in the General Assembly to propose to borrow £250,000 from British merchants which would be overseen by a loan office. The Virginia legislature had been granted the right to issue paper notes in lieu of British pounds during the war, but these were to have been retired from circulation and destroyed by the Treasurer and Speaker of the House, John Robinson, who also conceived of the loan office scheme.

To my knowledge, neither the passage of the Stamp Act in Parliament, nor the passage of Patrick Henry’s Resolves had ever been dramatized in fiction. What follows are excerpts from Sparrowhawk, Book Four: Empire, that illustrate the parallels.

Lieutenant-Governor Francis Fauquier warned his friends in the House about the obstacles facing a loan office bill if one were introduced.

“Be warned, my friend: I will not sign another bill without it having a suspending clause. And Mr. Robinson and his friends should not breathe easier if the bill is passed. The Board of Trade must approve it, and then the merchants, who must then introduce in the Commons a companion bill and secure its passage. It may be two or more years before any borrowed sterling reaches these shores.”

That daunting schedule does not discourage the bill’s advocates. However, George Washington, a burgess in the House, is asked by George Wythe, Williamsburg’s leading attorney and an influential burgess, for his thoughts on the bill. Washington answers:

“What little has been said about it, sir, I dislike. True, a loan to us by British merchants would bring us some true sterling here. God knows, we need such money in these parts. But I must ask this: For how long would that sterling stay in our purses, before it was whisked away in duties and taxes and the debts we already owe those gentlemen?…I am not in favor of increasing our debt to them. My children and grandchildren would needs spend their whole lives paying it off, living on their own property as mere tenants of absentee landlords in London, for that would be the only end consequence.”

“I see,” said Wythe. “And…on the Stamp Act?”

“With all due respect to our host [Fauquier] and the Crown, I believe it is as villainous a piece of legislation as can be imagined.”

Edmund Pendleton, another power in the House, defends the loan office idea on May 24th, 1765, recommending that it be assigned to a committee to be introduced as a bill to be debated and voted on. In answer to questions about the value of the loan office, he replies:

“…The depressing circumstances of this colony — the present low price of tobacco, the recent ban on our ability to issue money, the nullification of so many patents on land west of the Blue Ridge — all these factors, and others, have obliged so many persons here of substantial property to enter into great debts, which, if their payments were severely demanded, would ruin those men and their families and all who depend on them, and their ruin would certainly harbinge the ruin of men of lesser and other circumstances throughout this colony. A loan office, supervised by men of the strictest virtue, would enable those more substantial persons to pay their necessary debts with greater ease, and help to put this colony on a firmer and unassailable footing.”

Hugh [Kenrick, a hero of the series and a burgess] observed that Pendleton’s answer was more a plea than an answer. He wondered if Pendleton was one of those men of “substantial property.” The man was a key member of the Loyal Land Company and had title to thousands of acres of land in the now-forbidden Ohio Valley and beyond. Many other burgesses in the chamber were also speculators. There were no looks of confusion on their faces, he noted, only a common one composed of hope, patience, and made-up minds.

Hugh suspects that more is behind the loan office scheme than a ploy to save the colony’s credit standing and its largest planters from bankruptcy. Walking from the Capitol building with his fellow burgess from Queen Anne County, he discusses the loan office scheme. He asks his companion:

“All those paper notes that were issued during the war and which were supposed to have been retired and destroyed — is there any evidence that they were destroyed?”

Cullis searched his memory for a moment, then emitted a slow gasp. “Why…well, I don’t know….Mr. Robinson is the Treasurer….But, now that you mention it, well, I don’t recall that he ever reported to the House that it was done….I see what you are suggesting. And now I know why Mr. Henry was so coy in his accusations today….It puzzled me, why he was not more forward in his opposition to the scheme….”

Hugh sighed. “It cannot be proven, not unless the Treasurer’s books are very closely examined….Mr. Henry is eager to press for an investigation, but not until the next session. But you see how simple a task of legerdemain it would be for Mr. Robinson to substitute the expected sterling notes for those paper monies, at least in the account books. If there have been secret loans of those condemned notes, their amounts and dates could be altered to conform to the sterling. And then, the paper notes could truly be destroyed — and with them, any evidence of malfeasance. And it is Mr. Robinson who grants leave for an examination of the books. His own private account books would need to be examined, as well, for that is where the truth would be found….He got away with it last time, as you related to me, by blaming the deficit on delinquent tax collection by the sheriffs. But I do not believe he could fox another inquiry of that kind. Why propose only a two hundred and fifty thousand sterling loan, and not some other amount?”

Further on, Hugh explodes in anger:

He tore off his hat and angrily flung it into the air. “Oh, what a conniving club of uncles, cousins, brothers-in-law, and nephews!” he exclaimed. He faced a startled Cullis and waved a finger at the Capitol far down Duke of Gloucester Street. “It is too much that we are dunned without by petty thieves in London, and sniveled within by that…that rookery of rogues!”

Pendleton’s plea does not resonate with Patrick Henry. Neither John Robinson, nor Edmund Pendleton, nor Peyton Randolph, the Attorney-General, knows what his position is on the loan office scheme. Henry soon disabuses them of their doubts.

He excoriated the complexity of the proposal — “only a Newton could conceive of such a Gordian labyrinth…or should we say a charlatan?”…He pointed out that not only did British merchants already control the price of the colony’s exported tobacco, but that the scheme would “allow them to pick our pockets afresh with the proposed ten shillings per hogshead levy, for ten long years, in order to pay back the loan.” He ended his speech with the question, boldly addressed alternately to Speaker Robinson and Pendleton: “What, sirs? Is it proposed then to reclaim the spendthrift from his dissipation and extravagance by filling his pockets with money?”

…The burgess for Caroline [Pendleton] and the Attorney-General were not quite certain which was the object of Henry’s rhetorical query: the colonial government, which had a debt of £250,000; or the colony’s largest planters, who owed nearly a million pounds to British merchants and the Crown; or particular planters who would be the beneficiaries of the loan office.

Hugh, Washington, and other burgesses vote against referring the loan office scheme to committee to be introduced as a bill. But the scheme passes by a comfortable margin, and the idea is referred to committee.

On Monday, the 27th, the loan office committee conferred with the Council [the 12-member Governor’s Council, which acted as a senate, much as the House of Lords in Parliament acted as a senate for the Commons]….On Tuesday, the House resumed its business, and the Council returned to it several bills that it had passed and received the Governor’s signature, and one that had not — the loan office proposal, which was unanimously rejected.

Edmund Pendleton announces his departure for home, and leaves the session in a snit, because of the rejection, telling his allies:

“My work is finished here, and was fruitless. The Council, acting on bad and perhaps slanderous advice, has seen fit to ignore our pleas and scuttle the only accomplishment this session could have boasted.”

Pendleton did not think the Stamp Act would be debated, because he believed no copy of it was in anyone’s possession. But the stage is set for Henry to introduce his Resolves, and it is Pendleton’s absence that allows at least five of them to pass by a bare margin.

Historically, it transpired that upon John Robinson’s death some time later, he had not destroyed the notes as he was obliged to. And it was Edmund Pendleton who discovered the malfeasance when he audited the Treasurer‘s and Robinson‘s personal accounts. He spent the next decade repaying the debts from the late Treasurer’s estate.

Except for the denouement, the parallels with the current bailout “crisis” are uncanny. Just substitute AIG, Goldman Sachs, Washington Mutual, mortgage companies, the automakers and every other person or institution that depended on regulation and government largesse for the planters. Substitute Congress, the present administration and the one to come for John Robinson and his corrupt colleagues in and out of the General Assembly, and one has a cosmic replay of the scandals of 1765.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California, for example, was guaranteed a big chunk of the original $700 billion bailout for one of her constituents, Star-Kist. Other Congressmen rushed to guarantee bailout money for their own special political clients. It is likely that many in the Senate and House have or had stock and bond portfolios linked to the failed financial institutions they hurried to “rescue” from collapse.

Doubtless, Patrick Henry’s reported opposition to the loan office scheme gave the Governor’s Council pause for reflection. And, his Stamp Act Resolves gave Virginians and other colonists food for thought. I date the true beginning of the American Revolution to colonial resistance to the Stamp Act, which was repealed exactly a year later in 1766.

What we have today, instead, is an ignorant 500-pound federal gorilla attempting to “stimulate” the economy with the defibulator of unconstitutional, fiat power and an inflatable currency, that is, with force and fraud, with the news media and Congress conveniently forgetting that it was the gorilla that wrecked the economy in the first place.

Note also the various polls of Americans who are opposed to not only the bailout of the automakers, but the overall virtual nationalization of banks, financial institutions, and the automakers, as well, but that Congress and the present and future administrations are ignoring them, just as they have ignored the pitiful handful of Congressmen and journalists who also have opposed Congress’s “loan office” schemes.

Long live Lady Liberty! And let us work to clean out our own “rookery of rogues.”

*Chapters 6-9, pp. 191-220.

The Crown Prince of Collectivism

As one pundit observed, there is no such government position as “The Office of the President-Elect.” Yet, it is a measure of Barack Obama’s hubris (and vanity) that for a time he held press conferences whose locus was a lectern bearing the splayed federal eagle encircled by the fictive and powerless title, a knock-off of the Presidential Seal. The title is as phony as a three-dollar bill. Or, for that matter, as a dollar bill, since the dollar bill is just a piece of paper declared to be the sole legal tender of the land, backed by nothing but the fictive “credit“ of the U.S. government, which is currently on a spending spree.

There was a time when one could tender a federal “pay to bearer on demand” note or certificate of any denomination in any bank and receive gold or silver specie in return. What passes for currency now is just glorified scrip and clad zinc.

Apparently, Obama’s staff may have read on the Internet some dissatisfaction with the sign among his supporters, and also some mockery from his opponents, and recommended a more modest form of hubris. Gone now is the whole bogus seal of office, and the title appears on a sign without embellishment. I have heard no reports of any journalist at one of these press conferences questioning the employment of the fictive title. Doubtless the person who dared challenge Obama on the counterfeit seal of office or the title would be banished from further news conferences.

Obama’s hubris is also a measure of the sanction granted him by large sections of the electorate and of the news media, a sanction he is very much aware of and is exploiting. It has given him leave to behave like a royal heir presumptive preparing for his imminent succession to the throne, conditioning himself to govern his subjects, many of whom want to be conditioned, governed, led, and told what to do and why. It is a servility he is also very much aware of and has not hesitated to exploit, as well.

Watching the press question Obama, one has the sense that journalists are not so much seeking clarification on policy or even so much as a fact, as asking for orders about what to think and say. And the president-elect is not shy about giving them. The press and news media have replaced a search for truth with a yearning for belief, even if it is suspected that the truth is buried beneath a mountain of lies and well-cultivated deceptions about the man, about his ideas, about his character, about his intentions.

In modern journalism, truth is a regrettable option, to be leavened with artful palaver. One can only despise a press that reports half-lies as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Claude Rains, as the diplomat Dryden in Lawrence of Arabia, remarked about men who repress the truth: “…A man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”

Obama’s proposed economic agenda, which will include a socialist or Marxist “redistribution” plan under a more palatable name, is as transparently specious as the notion of “Intelligent Design.” (Were dinosaurs an instance of Unintelligent Design? Was their creator not as omniscient as has always been credited? Or were they an instance of divine planned obsolescence? There’s food for thought for creationists.) It is not any more intelligently designed than George W. Bush’s or Henry Paulson’s. Obama’s publicists, who now include most of the news media, are doing their best to assure the country that he is not a left-wing radical ready to seize the property and wealth of the rich and the upper middle class, but a “centrist” ready to compromise and “reach across the aisle” to find better bipartisan ways to salvage the economy and incidentally to ensure “social justice.”

Perhaps the most telling and honest appraisal of Obama’s present actions and intentions was voiced by Michael Gerson, writing for The Washington Post on December 3, in his column “Closet Centrist”:

“…Obama’s appointments reveal something important about current Bush policies. Though Obama’s campaign savaged the administration as incompetent and radical, Obama’s personnel decisions have effectively ratified Bush’s defense and economic approaches during the past few years. At the Pentagon, Obama rehired the architects of President Bush’s current military strategy — [Robert] Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno. At the Treasury Department, Obama has rehired one of the main architects of Bush’s current economic approach [Timothy Geithner].

“This continuity does not make Obama an ideological traitor. It indicates that Bush has been pursuing centrist, bipartisan policies — without getting much bipartisan support. The transition between Bush and Obama is smoother than some expected, not merely because Obama has moderate instincts but because Bush does as well. Particularly on the economy, Bush has never been a libertarian; he has always matched a commitment to free markets with a willingness to intervene when markets stumble.”

That is the most perceptive admission to date to be found in the liberal press on the absence of any fundamental difference between Republican and Democratic economic policies. But Gerson did not mention Obama’s nomination of Lawrence Summers, former Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and former president of Harvard University, to be head of the National Economic Council. He is regarded as some kind of economic wizard and troubleshooter.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times, however, let the cat out of the bag in his article of November 26, “The Return of Larry Summers”:

“His favorite argument today…goes like this: To undo the rise in income inequality since the late ‘70s, every household in the top 1 percent of the distribution, which makes $1.7 million on average, would need to write a check for $800,000. This money could then be pooled and used to send out a $10,000 check to every household in the bottom 80 percent of the distribution, those making less than $120,000. Only then would the country be as economically equal as it was three decades ago.”

One cannot get more socialistic than that. Never mind, says Summers, the rewards of wise investments by private individuals — that has nothing to do with “social justice” — never mind the capital represented by the multiple $800,000 checks that would not be ploughed back into the economy as investments in productive enterprises, never mind cause and effect, never mind the rights of the rich: all the “little guys” must be awarded their fair share of the economic pie, and if that hurts the rich and reduces them and everyone else to penury, too bad. We will have social and economic justice even if it penalizes everyone, but especially the rich, and on that foundation of theft and misery we will build a more equitable society.

No one should doubt that Obama shares with Summers his collectivist fantasy land, nor that he regards Summers’ redistribution idea as just an ideological day-dream. There will be no reality-checking Austrian or laissez-faire economists in an Obama administration, just as there were none in George W. Bush’s.

“It’s not that I want to punish your success,” Obama told the Plumber Joes of the nation. “I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a good chance for success too. My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody….I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

For a while, perhaps, up until the time the money is spent, goods become scarce, the capital is consumed. Only blame will be in plentiful supply, and it will be directed at everything and everyone but the chief culprit: the government.

Obama’s presumptuousness is in sync with the giddy, arrogant sanctimony too evident now in the political aristocracy. Witness the malicious glee, for example, with which politicians are subjecting cringing auto executives to egalitarian-premised interrogations, executives who are guilty of asking for their own “bailout,” not to mention of submitting themselves to the interrogation. (Do not expect them to emulate William H. Vanderbilt, the railroad tycoon, and reply to their interrogators and the press, “The public be damned!“) If you ever wanted a concrete picture of Ayn Rand’s “drooling beast” (The Fountainhead) look to the Senate and House, particularly at Henry Waxman, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi, and pick your villain. There is no reasoning with them, their power-lust is gracelessly shameless, and they mean to deliver the final death blows to what remains of freedom in this country.

Do not count on Obama undergoing, at some future date, when his agenda self-destructs, an eye-opening epiphany concerning the catastrophic consequences of his economic and social policies, which will simply punctuate the cumulative economic and social policies of the past, including Republican ones. If he is true to his model of FDR, with whom the press and news media are comparing him, he will not acknowledge the wrongness of his policies. After all, FDR never apologized for prolonging the Great Depression.

Do not grant Obama the meanest shadow of a doubt. Should things not go right, when reality catches up with his policies and those of his predecessors in office, he and his advisors will simply blame America for not being statist enough and Americans for being too selfish. They will blame all those Americans who will have exercised their modicum of volition and liberty and acted in the name of self-preservation and upset their calculations and plans. His cabinet and advisors are largely composed of persons who hate America — that is, America the land of the free — all of whom will want to force everyone to tow the line of statism.

Barack Obama claims that he does not mind disagreement, but has also said that as president-elect and as president, he will ultimately make policy, regardless of the rationality of any disagreement.

He will be Head of State, and he will give orders. Make way for the King.

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