Years ago, I worked as a congressional staff member on the U. S. budget. Based on that experience I was invited to teach a graduate course on the U. S. budget at the local college. I was to teach about the American budget and tax law.
Teaching about the U.S. budget is challenging, because the federal budget isn’t a budget at all. It isn’t legislation. The budget is a resolution–a philosophical statement of priorities- a sort of wish list. In contrast, Congress raises revenue and spends it through appropriations bills and tax laws. By the time tax and appropriations committees complete their work, not much is left of the original proposed budget resolution.
The U. S. Capitol where the Congress Meets
The First Legislature and the First Finance Laws in North America
To teach the course I had to decide where to begin. Since I’d been swamped by research on early Virginia (see The Wealth of Jamestown and The Wealth of Virginia), I turned to my notes on the first House of Burgesses. Meeting in 1619, before the Mayflower sailed, this was the first legislative body in English-speaking North America.
According to a “great charter” designed to end military rule and establish civilian government for the colony, two burgesses were elected from each of eleven settlements. They met in the only building sufficient in size to hold them, a small wooden Anglican church in Jamestown. The graves of four early Virginia leaders were recently found at this location.
Budget and Tax Actions of the First House of Burgesses
People interested in history are very fortunate; the first House had a speaker who evidently never said anything, but kept notes on the first meeting. The first burgesses convened on July 30, 1619, an inauspicious choice for an opening day in Virginia. It was so hot that one of the burgesses died of heat stroke.
The assembly adopted the provisions of the great charter, which stated that “And that they might have a hand in governing themselves,…a general assembly should be held yearly once, whereas to be present the governor and council with two burgesses from each plantation freely to be elected by the inhabitants thereof; this assembly to have the power to make and ordain whatsoever laws and orders should by them be thought good and profitable for the colony’s subsistence.”
For three days, the assembly converted various Virginia Company of London regulations into laws. For example, they adopted rules for land tenure, and considered proposals for bettering relations with the Powhatan Indians. They established the Anglican faith as the official religion of the colony. Importantly, every burgess gained the right to initiate legislation. Above all, the body decided it was to govern the colony, and not simply pass laws proposed by the company and/or the governor.
The First Spend and Tax Bills
To govern the colony the assembly decided to consider a sort of budget. Their new rules and regulations came with a price tag and the assembly believed in balanced budgets. Consequently, to cover its own costs, the assembly decided to raise revenues. The assembly debated the first American budget and tax law.
Virginia in 1619 had no currency and no banks. Tobacco was the medium of exchange in the colony . Factors (wholesalers) who bought and sold tobacco in the international market set the price of tobacco,. which varied according to market conditions. Meanwhile Virginia tobacco already was being shipped to Europe on a regular basis.
Tobacco in the Field
On the fourth and last day of the assembly, the burgesses passed the first North American tax law. This required that every man and servant older than sixteen pay one pound of their best tobacco to the colony to pay for the services provided by the assembly’s speaker, clerk, and sergeant-at-arms during the legislative session.
The First Tax Dispute and the First Labor Strike
Two burgesses were denied their seats in the first assembly. These were Polish glass makers and operators of the only manufacturing enterprise in the colony.
Colonial Blown Glass
The Poles were not English-speaking and not Anglican; they were Catholic. The Poles promptly called a labor stoppage. Today, we’d call it a strike. Only after they’d been granted their right to vote did they go back to work. They also agreed to train people in the craft of glassmaking. Under this agreement, the Poles became subject to taxation.
This was how government finance and the budget began in Virginia : the first American budget and tax law went into effect.
An Old Accounting Joke
Spending and taxes have always required accountants, and jokes about accountants are very old. Here is one:
“A man piloting a hot air balloon discovers that he has wandered off course and is hopelessly lost. He descends to a lower altitude and locates a man on the ground. He lowers the balloon further and shouts, “Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?”
The man below says, “Yes, you are in a hot air balloon, about thirty feet above this field.”
“You must be an accountant,” says the balloonist.
“Yes, I am,” replies the man. “And how did you know that?”
“Well, says the balloonist, “what you tell me is technically correct, but of no use to anyone.”
The man below says, “You must be a manager.”
“Well, yes I am,” replies the balloonist. “How did you know?”
“Well, says the accountant, “you don’t know where you are, or where you’re going, but you expect my immediate help. You’re in the same position you were before we met, but now it’s my fault.”
Science and Knowledge: Keeping them Alive
During the early years of the United States, adults esteemed science and knowledge of mathematics as objects of learning. In addition, they loved asking questions about the natural world and the universe. Jefferson’s and Madison’s libraries covered universal subjects in many languages.
Thought in this period rested on what historians call the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. These were ideological shifts about the rights of man that led to the great revolutions of the eighteenth century. In the early 1800s Americans supported not only their revolution, but its ideological underpinnings.
Early Americans were interested in more than politics. Most importantly, they believed that “we the people” could pursue happiness by free inquiry and free thought in all fields. They knew the difference between facts and fiction, and valued systematically analyzed and understood facts. In sum, they admired and valued science; the U. S. Constitution guarantees patent rights to the innovative.
Very few universities existed and most of these focused on the instruction of ministers of religion. Thus, the educational establishment purveyed religion and morality; it did not conduct research and support free inquiry. However, the core curriculum in most universities included mathematics and some practical science. This practical core allowed The College of William and Mary to train and grant a license to George Washington to be a surveyor.
The Philadelphia Museum
None of the thirteen colonies housed museums, although there were several learned societies that pursued the science of the day and diffusion of knowledge. The Philadelphia Museum founded by Charles Willson Peale in 1784 was the first American museum. Peale, a well-known portrait painter, opened the museum with a display of forty- four “worthy persons” of the revolutionary era.
Peale hoped to get commissions for more portraits and charged admission to his museum. At first, his collection occupied the upstairs space in his home. Here is one of Peale’s portraits of George Washington (now hanging at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon):
George Washington in Virginia Militia, 1772
The Philadelphia Museum began to attract donations of many items and soon had to expand from its original space. For example, displays included Martha Washington’s thimble, American Indian clothing, weapons, and various household objects.
In 1794 Peale moved the museum to the building of the American Philosophical Society, the country’s first scientific society, where Peale served as secretary. Peale, a scholar and student of botany and natural history, collected specimens of plants and animals. Interestingly, he found a place in his museum for a live menagerie including two grizzly bears, a monkey and a bald eagle.
Science and Knowledge of Natural History
The American Philosophical Society pursued science. Members studied and systematically organized their knowledge. They made their discoveries and artifacts available to the public.
In 1801 Peale led an expedition to Newburgh, New York where a farmer had found the skeleton of a large mastodon. Peale and his son, Rembrandt, excavated and reassembled the skeleton and put it on display in the museum. The mammoth caused a sensation and was the most popular item in the Peale collection. As a result of increased visitor interest and attendance, the following year the museum moved to the second floor of Independence Hall.
The Peale Collection was now a serious museum. Visitors received a printed catalogue with collections organized according to a botanical order. Painted portraits hung over glass cases holding birds, reptiles, insects, minerals and fossils. The reassembled mammoth skeleton dominated the museum.
Restored Mammoth in Museum
The Smithsonian Institution: Origin and Early History
Similar to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, a group of Washington DC citizens organized the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences in 1816. The organization received a charter from the U. S. Congress in 1818 and elected some prominent members who served as officers.
The Institute proposed to study plant life, to create a botanical garden on the capitol Mall, to study the country’s mineral production, to improve the management and care of livestock, and to create a topographical and statistical history of the United States. In 1824 it occupied a permanent home in the capitol building and provided weekly presentations to members of Congress.
During the life of the society, eighty-five communications were presented to Congress, with more than half devoted to astronomy and mathematics. Of all the activities planned by the institute, two were implemented—the establishment of a botanical garden (it’s still there) and a national museum for the study of natural history. The Institute’s charter expired in 1838. The National Museum, based on the natural history holdings of the society and founded in 1840, later became part of the Smithsonian Institution.
James Smithson was a well-to-do British scientist living in Italy. He died in 1829 leaving most of his estate to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford. Smithson’s will stipulated that should his nephew die without heirs, the estate would pass “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The nephew, Hungerford, died in 1835, childless and still in his twenties.
Nobody knows why Smithson did this. He had never visited the United States and knew nobody living there.
Finally, Congress officially accepted the legacy and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust on July 1, 1836. President Andrew Jackson sent Richard Rush to England to collect the bequest, and Rush returned with 105 sacks containing 104,960 gold sovereigns. That amounted to about $500,000 at the time; in today’s dollars, approximately $220 million.
What did Smithson Mean by Science and Knowledge?
President James K. Polk in 1846 signed legislation establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of the United States. The law created a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian who would administer the institution.
Smithson’s will did not specify what he meant by diffusion of knowledge, and the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the institution to become a center for scientific research. At the same time, it became the depository for various U. S. Government collections.
In 1838 the United States navy embarked on an exploration that would circumnavigate the globe and last four years. The expedition, conducted by a navy crew and nine civilian scientists, sailed on six small ships.
The exploring expedition amassed forty tons of samples of natural history. Artifacts included thousands of zoological specimens, 50,000 plant specimens, thousands of shells, corals, fossils and geological specimens. In addition, the expedition collected a few thousand ethnological curiosities, including 450 weapons. The crew evidently participated in deadly battles with Fijian warriors and collected many intricately carved war clubs.
Fijian War Club
Housing Science and Knowledge: The Castle
The vast collection brought back by the exploring expedition was catalogued and displayed at the U. S. Patent Office. As a result of the expedition, Congress debated the need for a building on the Mall, to both fulfill Smithson’s wish and to house all of the newly amassed objects. At the time, Washington DC was a small city and the Mall served as its center.
Money was appropriated and construction began in 1849. The building, designed by James Renwick, Jr., imitated a Norman castle. The Smithsonian opened its building, known widely as the Castle, in 1855, completing the requirements of Smithson’s will.
The Smithsonian Castle
Today the Smithsonian Institution is a giant repository of knowledge and science in Washington DC, a city dominated by politicians and politics. While rhetoric, exaggeration, and obfuscation comprise most of what politicians say, they know where science and knowledge come from. They support the Smithsonian with their budget every year.
Free and open to the public, the Smithsonian has been that way from its beginning. Today it consists of nineteen museums as well as the National Zoo. Eleven of the museums are located on the National Mall along with the National Botanical Garden. In addition, the Smithsonian supports 168 affiliated museums in 39 states, Panama and Puerto Rico.
Still true to the requirements of science, the Smithsonian Institution supports some twenty research centers. Several are connected to affiliated Smithsonian museums.
In 2020, the federal budget and appropriations by Congress for the Smithsonian amounted to $1 billion, or 62 percent of total expenditures. The rest comes from trusts and private donations. Smithson’s legacy still operates.
Science and Knowledge: Magic at the Smithsonian
My family lived in Washington DC during the years my children grew to adulthood. We visited the Smithsonian frequently and one year both my children enrolled in a Smithsonian course on magic.
Christian the Magician acted as professor and he was well known in my neighborhood for presentations at birthday parties. For six weeks he met with his small class teaching them not only the tricks, but how to present them.
The final exam consisted of a performance by the students for an audience of parents and grandparents, held in a small auditorium in the Castle. We sat in a semi-circle on platforms built to serve as seats (no chairs) and could view the small stage from above.
My children managed to demonstrate a display of a complete newspaper page after they had shown the crowd that they had torn it up and shredded it. We cheered loudly as did all the other parents and grandparents.
After the performance I asked the children how they did it. They refused to answer. They had done the work and were keeping the knowledge and science to themselves.
Years ago, I wrote a short article for a local on-line newspaper, entitled “Governor Andros, Christmas and New Year’s Day.” The piece tried to provide some historical context for our holidays, and Williamsburg, where I live, is steeped in early history.
I’m not sure who read my first piece or why, but it has always bothered me that I published it without doing proper research. I have since done quite a lot of reading about the period and have published four historical novels that rest on the facts that I’ve discovered. While my novels don’t mention religion in history and holidays, Gov. Andros is an important character in my first, The Wealth of Jamestown.
Cover, The Wealth of Jamestown
This being New Year’s Day, I’ve decided, finally, to correct the record. Thus, this piece is a long time New Year’s resolution for me.
I never questioned the history related in my first piece. I comfortably simply repeated what historians claimed. Now, after much work, I realize that historians of the eighteenth century and earlier served the people who paid and employed them. They arranged the facts to project the elite’s agenda. The story about history and holidays first related about Gov. Andros, repeating these historians, was incorrect.
The Truth about Edmund Andros
My first article described Governor Andros as follows:
“Edmund Andros (1637-1714) served, at various times, as royal governor of New York, New Jersey, New England and Virginia. He descended from the feudal aristocracy, was a strong royalist with powerful connections at the king’s court in London, and one of the most reviled and despised of colonial royal governors.”
Sir Edmund Andros. Rhode Island State House collection.
Born in 1637, Edmunds Andros came from the island of Guernsey. His father, of low-level nobility, served as Bailiff of Guernsey and Marshall of Ceremonies to King Charles I. The king’s Marshall of Ceremonies, a military figure who appeared in full dress uniform, organized the ceremonial greetings for visitors to the royal court. As a result, Edmund, the eldest son, received his education in London at court along with the other children of the royal household.
The Andros family, as royalists, supported the Church of England in the English civil wars of the seventeenth century. They suffered much, as forces loyal to Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell besieged Castle Cornet where the Andros family lived on Guernsey for nine years.
The Andros Family and Oliver Cromwell
The Andros family, though not actively religious, supported the king and the king’s religion. Most importantly, they upheld the old order, with the emphasis on feudal honor and duty among respected military leaders. They opposed Cromwell not on the basis of religion, but because he radically opposed the old order. Cromwell replaced the king and appointed himself as Lord Protector. He was anti-bishop, anti-Pope and anti-King. Cromwell and his rump parliament beheaded King Charles I in 1649.
In 1649-50 the Andros family escaped Cromwell’s siege. They sailed from Guernsey to Jersey and from there to Holland. In Holland, Edmund’s mother joined the court of the Queen of Bohemia, the sister to the deposed and beheaded King Charles. Edmund’s father became part of a court in exile and his uncle served as captain of the exiled Horse Guards.
As a teenager, Edmund befriended William of Orange who lived in Holland, as well as Mary, daughter of Charles I, who William later married. William and Mary became monarchs of England after the removal of King James II by the parliament in 1689.
Edmund Andros, Colonial Magistrate
When Charles II returned to power in 1660, Edmund Andros came back to England as a member of the Royal Militia. Over the next twenty years he built a distinguished military career. Though not a university graduate, he had strong diplomatic skills and could speak several European languages, including French, German, Dutch and Danish. He conducted a number of diplomatic missions as a skilled negotiator.
In 1674, Andros’ father died, and Edmund became Bailiff of Guernsey. By then he’d married, but had no children. He became a dedicated colonial governor and administrator in Barbados, New York, and New England. King James II knighted Andros for his work in achieving a treaty with the Indians while Andros served as governor of New York (1674 to 1681).
In 1681 colonists in New York charged Andros with financial irregularities and favoritism and he was recalled to London to stand trial. Once home in London he didn’t stand trial and instead returned to North America with a promotion: Governor of the Dominion of New England, a territory stretching from Massachusetts to New Jersey. At the time, if he was despised by anyone, it was by Puritans loyal to the beliefs of Oliver Cromwell. In London, Edmund Andros was highly respected and honored.
History and Holidays: Governor Andros and Christmas
In 1582 Pope Gregory decreed January 1 as New Year’s Day, but the British Empire (which included the American colonies) did not accept the new calendar until 1752. So, Christmas in the British colonies remained a stand-alone holiday, though it lasted for twelve days, from December 25 through January 6. New Year’s Day came two months later in March.
The British pursued many disputes with the Pope and Catholic monarchs of Spain and France, including not accepting the Gregorian calendar. Kings sat as heads of state and heads of religion, completely intertwining politics and religion. Royal governors took strong positions on religious issues like holiday celebrations. History and holidays form part of the backdrop to European religious warfare of the time.
The Puritans of New England disapproved of the celebration of Christmas, and banned it from Boston from 1659-1681. Andros. as governor of New England in 1686, revoked the ban and also revoked the ban on festivities on Saturday nights.
Puritans detested Andros for these acts. In addition, he limited individual colonial legislatures to one meeting a year, and used his powers to overturn certain colonial laws and customs. After all, he was Governor of New England. not simply of the historical individual colonies. Connecticut despised him so intensely that his name is still excluded from the state’s list of colonial governors.
Overthrow of James II
In April 1689 the parliament overthrew King James II and Andros attempted to escape New England dressed as a woman. He was caught when someone spotted his boots beneath his dress. Once again, he was sent back to London for trial. On arrival in London, he was immediately released again, and later returned to the colonies as Governor of Virginia (1692-1698).
Andros had been a good Anglican all his life. He’d built and supported Anglican churches throughout New England, New York and the Jerseys. By the time he got to Virginia, Andros had terrible memories of dealings with the Puritans in Massachusetts.
Andros, like many others of his generation, remembered the horrors and bloodshed over differences in religion during the time of Oliver Cromwell. Andros wanted to keep religion out of politics as much as possible. For him, the defense and economic strength of the colony overrode all other issues.
After six years of peace and strong economic development Andros retired as Governor of Virginia in 1698 . He’d never used his position as governor to amass property as many other colonial governors had before him. He retired reasonably well off, but not wealthy.
Conclusions about Governor Andros
My first article stated:
“The tale of Governor Andros leaves us with a few thoughts on the New Year. He certainly had many opportunities to succeed, but failed every time. Was he repeatedly sent back from London to the colonies, every time without trial, because his supporters wanted him out of London? Did he receive the first “golden parachute” on North American soil?”
Andros died in 1714 at the age of seventy-six. Toward the end of his life, he saw the end of the war of the Spanish Succession, with the conclusion of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Over the course of that war some 400,000 people were killed in Europe.
Sir Edmund Andros, in his lifetime, had seen peace only in Virginia. He lived to see the Act of Union in 1707, which brought Scotland into the United Kingdom. He’d lived an honorable life and was recognized in death for his accomplishments.
Andros as a Model Chief Executive
Andros was buried with honors with a marching retinue of sixty-six men each carrying a white branch light. They were followed by twenty men on horseback, and six mourning coaches, each pulled by six horses. He was buried at St. Anne’s Church in Soho, a building destroyed by the Nazi blitz of London in World War II.
Historians wonder where George Washington got the idea that he could refuse being a king and instead serve out a legally set term of office. During Washington’s lifetime, the rest of the world consisted of monarchies and empires based on the idea of the divine right of kings.
Washington didn’t have far to go to find a model. Edmund Andros had served as governor of Virginia. As the local chief executive, Andros codified local laws, enforced them, maintained defenses, and avoided dealing directly with issues related to religion. He allowed and didn’t interfere with holiday celebrations. He didn’t use his office to plunder, and opposed absentee land ownership. After six years he voluntarily retired to go back to his farm in Guernsey.
Religion, History and Holidays: a Final Thought
“I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up…. They have no holidays”. (Henny Youngman).
Consistent with Thanksgiving’s history, this year, 2020, hasn’t been one to rave about. Thanksgiving is about remembering that things could be worse and that we should be thankful that we are here. This year, we’ve survived a contested national election, an epidemic, and harsh responses by government to the epidemic. COVID-19 took many lives and many small businesses lost their customers and disappeared. Children stayed home during lockdowns and spent a school year outside the classroom. But we’re still here, and looking forward. We are thankful.
According to current rules we’ll have fewer large capacity feasts and massive parades this year. People are beginning to ignore rules, but everyone still is aware of the dangers of contracting the virus.
About ten year’s ago in a year full of feasts, parades and football, I published a brief history of Thanksgiving for northernneck.com, a local on-line newspaper. The following is what I wrote then. History doesn’t change: Thanksgiving has always been about people recognizing that things may be tough, but we’ve survived.
Historians believe that the first Thanksgiving by Europeans in North America took place in Florida in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the coast. He claimed the land for Spain and offered a prayer of thanks for safe passage. Later, on September 8, 1565 Spanish settlers in Saint Augustine, Florida, sang hymns of thanks, celebrated Mass, and fed themselves and local Indians with food from ships—hardtack, beans and wine.
Native Americans celebrated Thanksgiving festivals for many centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Thanksgiving’s history for English-speaking Europeans began in Virginia on September 4, 1619 at Berkeley Plantation. There thirty-eight settlers, all men, gave thanks and proclaimed that thereafter the day of the ship’s arrival would be observed as a religious day of Thanksgiving. In Massachusetts, Plymouth’s first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a harvest feast, and involved the Wampanoag Indians. The menu is uncertain, but foods available included wild fowl and venison.
Jamestown Interpreter Baking Fish over Open Fire
The 1621 Pilgrim feast wasn’t repeated, but Thanksgiving’s history progressed. Over the years New England developed an annual tradition of thanksgiving prayers after the harvest. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom and by the middle of the 19th century many other states did the same. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. Since then every President has issued an annual Thanksgiving proclamation.
Thanksgiving: An Official Legal Holiday
Finally, in 1941 Congress established Thanksgiving as an official national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. World War II raged, and President Roosevelt delivered a famous speech celebrating four freedoms: for speech and worship, and from want and fear. Norman Rockwell created four paintings commemorating the speech. He depicted “Freedom from Want” as a family Thanksgiving feast of roast turkey.
The Norman Rockwell paintings were published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. The Treasury Department toured the paintings around the country, selling over $130 million in war bonds.
Thanksgiving today is a secular holiday, characterized by parades, football games and turkey dinners. The Friday after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday or the official start of the retail Christmas season.
Thanksgiving dinner normally consists of roast turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. The National Turkey Federation estimated that about 46 million turkeys were consumed by Americans last year at Thanksgiving. Cranberry sauce is a very American tradition. The cranberry is one of only three fruits—the others are blueberries and concord grapes—to be native to American soil.
A Thanksgiving Story
Aside from the old question, “Why did the turkey cross the road?” (Answer: it was the chicken’s day off), there are many turkey tales.
A pro football team once finished daily practice, when a large turkey strutted onto the field. While the players gazed in amazement, the turkey walked up to the head coach and demanded a tryout. Everyone stared in silence as the turkey caught pass after pass and ran right through the defensive line. When the turkey returned to the sidelines, the coach shouted, “You’re terrific!!! Sign up for the season, and I’ll see to it that you get a huge bonus.” “Forget the bonus, the turkey said, “All I want to know is, does the season go past Thanksgiving Day?”
My newspaper this morning delivered the news about dictatorship in the world, and the role of communication in supporting or defying it. The stories told about actions taken by dictatorial bosses who did not consult the general public. Consequently, whether they liked it or not, dictators had their acts communicated to the public.
For example, three unconnected stories illustrate similar truths:
- The dictator Lukashenko in Belarus called out troops to put down protestors who claim he stole a recent election. In the old days, he would have shot a few people and gotten away with it. The protestors are organized and communicating with each other and the international press. Subsequently, Lukashenko alerted his Russian patrons that he may need military help. In a timely way, I’m reading about it in my newspaper.
- Israel imposed a national lockdown forbidding large groups from gathering, on the eve of the Jewish high holidays. Most importantly, the lockdown will last till October, making impossible worship of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by large groups of people sitting together. Ultra-religious Israeli citizens are very angry, and my newspaper presents the details.
- The Dallas Symphony for the first time during the pandemic held a concert in its usual concert hall for some of its subscribers. The symphony hall holds more than 1800 seats, and this concert played for about seventy subscribers. The program consisted of three relatively short Beethoven pieces, short because no intermissions were allowed. A famous pianist played with an orchestra of 35, under an Italian conductor who entered the U. S. by special arrangements. First steps taken against rules imposed by government, and now people everywhere know about it.
Communication has Changed Form
This blog is about as old as the current pandemic lockdown. In a way it’s a child of current trends in communication. In my lifetime, communication has moved from newspapers, radio and movies, to television, and to digital communication. Print media gradually faded into the background, replaced by cable television and digital media.
Many newspapers, book publishers, and movie theaters failed well before the pandemic lockdowns. However, fifty years ago the communications media provided widely watched and respected national news, as well as high quality popular entertainment and artistry. Newspapers and books printed educated commentary and thoughtful essays.
Newspapers Used to be Numerous
Today, instant images of events, distributed to a world-wide audience by electronic devices, stand in the place of the news reported in the old media. The time consuming business of creating thoughtful commentary today is replaced by partisan shouting on television and in newspapers. As a result, newspapers keep dying and the old broadcast television and theater-based movie businesses continue to shrink. In other words, we are seeing a Gresham’s Law in communications: bad news drives out good news.
Communication and Dictatorship
Like most complex changes, there are pluses and minuses to the transformation of modes of communication. In days when literacy wasn’t widespread and small elites owned the newspapers, newspapers could sway national leaders and affect policy. Elites monopolized national communications and could excite the public. They created fervor for whatever interested them. Newspapers could start wars. Dictators also used them to support their actions and abuse opponents..
The old dictatorships manipulated radio, movie and print communication. If they didn’t like a newspaper, they sent thugs to destroy the printing presses. They could forcibly take over radio stations and stop the showing of movies they didn’t like.
The dictator has a harder time monopolizing thought and communication when everyone is a communicator. For example, if Lukashenko sends in troops to support his rule, the images of the event will appear on cellphones and mobile media instantly and world-wide. His Russian patrons know that.
Cell Phones Tell the News When it Happens
Lukashenko can’t stop cell phones from working in Belarus and throughout the world. When Israel decreed the lockdown, the government couldn’t stop loud complaints. When the Dallas symphony took small steps at reopening, it was reported not only in Texas but in The Wall Street Journal.
Forms of Communication and Content
About eighty per cent of the readers of this little blog use mobile devices. In other words, people are reading this mainly on smart phones. Since I’ve already reached my 80th birthday this delights me, At my age, the feeling of being relevant is very enjoyable.
The digital world has no geographic limits. My readers live in India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other places. Because I write in English, and mostly about the lessons of American history, I’m not surprised my readers live mainly where English is spoken.
I can’t tell which blogs do best in which place. I guess comments about the contributions of women to history and visions of grandchildren are appreciated everywhere.
Communication and the Breakdown of Dictatorship
As everyone probably knows, state governments have imposed a pandemic lockdown on those of us living in the United States. We are also enduring a national election.
Local governors have seized emergency powers, without resort to public approval. They are miniature dictators, imposing rules by emergency decree. They dictate the size of group gatherings, spacing for social distancing, and the opening or closing of various businesses. Governors decree what size of group can meet where and where people are required to wear masks. State governors decree whether restaurants can open and when they can serve indoors. They dictate the distances people must observe when out in public. Governors make decisions about placing sick people in nursing homes or quarantining nursing homes.
These rules vary from state to state. Some states permit large numbers of people to carry on public protests. If protests become too violent, governors make the decision whether or not to call out the national guard. Social media report events in real time, instantaneously. Newspapers and television follow up with partisan shouting and little objective analysis.
It is hard to measure the effects of widespread instantaneous communication. How soon do people make decisions on elections? Do they wait for debates? Which is more prone to partisan manipulation and outright deceit: newspapers, television news reports, or social media?
Dictators have a harder time with social media. They can’t ban the use of phones and digital media without harming the general economy: business requires regular communication and ease of data collection. But with that, you get twitter, and personal tweets from the president down (or up?) to everyone, including children, and the reverse.
It’s the reverse that counts: dictators now can hear what people are saying and can’t control everything that’s said.
Why do people care about history? What do they think knowledge about the old days will tell them? Men and women look at history a little differently. They imagine what the world might have been for each of them.
After several years as a docent at Jamestown Settlement and fielding questions from people from all age groups and parts of the country, I think I understand what we, both men and women, want to learn about history. Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum commemorating the arrival of three English ships in 1607.
Children learn the history: warfare, Pocahontas, starvation, lots of murky action. Jamestown Settlement is a park, a fort, an Indian village, and a dock on the James River holding replicas of the three ships. Children enjoy playing outside where chickens and wild turkeys roam and crafts are demonstrated in the Indian village.
But adults don’t come to Jamestown simply to entertain the children. When they enter the museum they ask questions. They want to know where they fit into the mosaic that makes up American history. Did their ancestors arrive in Virginia four hundred years ago? Unlikely, in physical terms, for most people asking. But they still feel an affinity with the first settlers; somehow they feel a connection.
Susan Constant docked on James River
History and the Need for Women
The first settlers were young men and boys who spent a lot of time fighting with everyone, including themselves. After all, they came to fight, and thought they would fight the Spanish. Sometimes they succeeded in killing each other. These people didn’t have descendants.
So when does American history begin? In my opinion, it happened when the first young settlers realized that to survive, they couldn’t rely on rescue ships from the mother country. To thrive in the new world, they needed to build more than a lonely fort. They needed a place to live and begin families. For that, they needed women.
In the beginning, the only women around Jamestown came from the native tribes who lived in the area. Archaeology tells us that native women did a lot of the cooking in Jamestown fort. Historians estimate that about a third of the original settlers who arrived on the first ships married Indian women.
Indian Cooking Site outside Jamestown Fort
After a hundred years or so, with substantial intermarriage with the Indians and the arrival of some women from Europe, Virginia developed a family structure. The wealthy landowners created plantations on which they raised and sold tobacco. There were very few towns; religion was observed in small parish churches paid for and controlled by local parishioners who lived on plantations. Though the colony received a charter to establish a university in 1622, Virginia didn’t get around to accepting that idea until 1693.
Virginia tobacco was highly prized in the mother country and all over Europe, and Virginia planters became wealthy. From 1619 they were also self-governing by an elected House of Burgesses. The mother country sent over governors who were advised by an appointed Governors Council; the more raucous elected House of Burgesses passed all legislation, including tax bills.
Women in Colonial Virginia
This is all basic stuff, but think. What and who were represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses? After about a hundred years the colony numbered about fifty thousand people. Two representatives were elected from each borough and they, all men, represented the plantations.
The plantation was Virginia’s basic unit of society. It contained everything that was necessary for life and the beginning of a family structure: the plantation raised the food, prepared it, made the furniture and the tools necessary for the crops, and sold the product. It also provided security from bandits and incursions by foreign tribes. A representative of a plantation spoke for everyone living there: rich, poor, male, female, free, indentured or slave.
Tobacco brought wealth and nice houses located on the rivers from which tobacco was shipped. Tobacco traded internationally; Virginia credit purchased many products for the use and enjoyment of the plantation residents. It also paid for tutors for the children.
Because the men went out to the fields and served in the local militia, Virginia plantations often were run day-to-day by women. Women frequently outlived their husbands and powerful, wealthy women operated in international trade. Women were important participants in deciding who their children should marry, and Virginia plantation society featured close family ties. Many members of the Governor’s Council and the House of Burgesses were closely related. It was a government of cousins who knew each other well.
History Continues: Women still Watch out for the Children
Is that so different from what we have today? Women still write a lot of the checks and run most households. They have the children and raise them. They also run a lot of small businesses, as they did in colonial Virginia. When a tourist visits Colonial Williamsburg he and his family can eat in a number of restaurants in the colonial area. Historically, almost all of them were owned and operated by women.
Women exercised their property rights early, and generally they did so to protect their children. Jamestown Settlement’s museum displays a legal document from the 1650s which describes what today would be described as a prenuptial agreement. In it, Mrs. Hannah Bennett Turner Tompkins Arnold states that she will marry her third husband, but that certain parts of her acreage will be set aside for her children. She buried three husbands and kept her farm and property together for her heirs by legal deed.
This is all detailed to a certain extent in my book, The Wealth of Jamestown. The star of that book is, of course, Sarah Harrison, daughter of a great planter, who in her marriage ceremony to the Rev. James Blair, clearly stated “No obey” when asked if she would love, honor and obey him. From that, the plot thickened.
Women didn’t often get their names and dates recorded, but they were there. We’d have no history without them.