Monthly Archives: January 2009

Jefferson’s Declaration

Having completed the reading on the origins of World War I for the moment, I’ve turned next to a rather comprehensive collection of Jefferson’s writings. These start with his autobiography, within which is published his original version of the Declaration of Independence, with indications as to what was removed, and what added, by committee prior to its release to the world.

I want to narrow in on two changes that were made, which I believe indicate – even more than the final document – the magnificence of this man. The first is a single word change in what may be the most important line in the document. The edited version reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

The original version from Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

I do not believe these statements are identical. While the published version indicates that the rights of Man may not be separated from Man, and that these rights are not changeable with time or circumstance (my interpretation of the use of the word “certain” to mean absolute, not relative), Jefferson’s use of the word “inherent” suggests something significantly different. In Jefferson’s phrasing, it is in the Nature of Man to have these rights.The veryessential being of Man includes the existence of these rights.It is because he is what he is – a being capable of rationality, a fact from which no man can (or should try to) escape – that he is endowed (not by a creator, but by the way of being) with these moral securities against denial of his fundamental requirements for life by other men. The removal of this word then places the burden on the term “unalienable” to subsume this meaning. I do not believe that this term has the same connotation. By unalienable is suggested that there should be no attempt made to separate Man from these rights, but not that it cannot be done by the very definition of what it means to be Man.

I also notice that the word creator is not capitalized in the text. This could be simply a fault of the printing of the collection of papers that I have, while it is certain that in the final published copy this word is capitalized. (It is also true that several other words are capitalized in the published copy, and only words that we now consider proper nouns and the start of sentences are capitalized in the text I have).

The other significant change I saw was in the final paragraph of the document. The published version reads:

And for the support of this declaration, witha firm reliance on the protection of divine providence we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Jefferson’s version:

And for the support of this declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Elsewhere in the document, God is mentioned only once, and this in the opening paragraph – this is the same in Jefferson’s and the published version:

…and to assume among the powers of the Earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them…

Even here, note that the God described is “nature’s God”, not a God associated directly with Man. Of course I am aware of the fact that Jefferson and many of the other founding fathers were Deists – and this fits the description of a Deist quite well. What I had not realized was the fact that the plea for divine intervention (such as it is) is not from Jefferson, but from the committee.

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Causes of World War I – Part 2

Shortly after the turn of the century, however, the situation begins to change. Germany, now secure in its alliance with Austria-Hungary, begins a massive expansion of its navy. Britain cannot tolerate a second strong European navy, and the English and Germans start an arms race, each increasing its expenditure on naval forces in a spiraling crescendo. The British launch the first “dreadnought” battleship in 1906 – the first ship equipped with large caliber (12 inch) guns exclusively. Germany (and the US, and Japan) rapidlylaunch theirown dreadnought, and the race accelerates. A series of attempts at “arms control” over the dreadnought between Germany and Englandare repeatedly violated by the Germans in secret.

Meanwhile, Russia is showing signs of weakness. After her defeat against Japan in 1905, social revolution threatens to take down the Tsar, and the Russian army is ill-prepared to face external conflicts. In the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire faces repeated uprisings against a variety of Turkish atrocities, and shows itself to be increasingly unable to maintain control. Both Austria-Hungary and Russia look on with concern over the stability and ultimate fate of these neighbors.

All this forms the background for the final events – the immediate cause – of the war. On June 28, 1914, archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb. Austria demanded Serbia cease anti-Austrian propaganda andarrest the parties suspected in the assassination. Meanwhile, Austrian and German diplomats came to an understanding that no serious attempts to negotiate a settlement should be made, and preparations for a large scale war should begin. Serbia received assurances from Russia that Russia would intervene on Serbia’s behalf in the event of hostilities, and Serbia proceeded to mobilize. Within a month of Austria’s ultimatum, the delicate web of treaties and agreements that maintained the Balance of Power were all activated, and France, Russia, England, Germany and Austria-Hungary found themselves at war.

What surprised me most about reading through this history was the use of a relatively minor diplomatic crisis to trigger so massive a response. Clearly the combatants never envisioned a war lasting 4 years and claiming the lives of 8 million people. This war, on the face of it, had no rational immediate cause. Rather, it was the inevitable consequence of a large set of interlocking and growing tensions that were accepted by the European nations as the boundary conditions of diplomacyfor over 60 years. In seeking to identify a major theme in the decades leading to this disaster, two come to mind. First – and potentially the dominant theme – is the rise of German industrial power. A second theme – more apparent in the consequences of the war – is the incomplete social revolution of Europe. The primary political casualties of the war were the Empires – the Ottoman, the Austria-Hungarian, the German, and the Russian. Although not replaced entirely by democracies, the failure of these authoritarian states lead to the rise of more localized nations whose borders were based on nationality (common customs). Poland, Lithuania, Finland, Estonia and Latvia became independent nations based on nationality. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia became smaller agglomerations of nationalities.

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Causes of World War I – Part 1

After my string of poor reading selections, I gambled once again, and read a rather lengthy history of Europe spanning 1848 through 1918. I’ve been interested in filling in my knowledge of this period, in particular trying to understand the root causes of World War I.

The book in question is “The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918” by A.J. Taylor and was published in the 1950s. Although I found the book highly informative, and directly addressing my interests – which were more about the power struggle and diplomacy of the period, and less about the details of battles and the development of weapons – this choice did suffer from a couple shortcomings. Taylor states in the introduction that this is not a textbook. This becomes apparent when he repeatedly assumes knowledge on the part of the reader that is far beyond what the non-historian would know about the time period (at least now, 50 years after publication, and in a time when history is not taught in most American school systems [no, “social studies” do not count!]). For example, near the beginning of the book he doesn’t bother describing the political geography of 1848, and left me trying to grasp the relationship between Prussia, Austria, and the “German Confederation”. Major political events are assumed knowledge – such as the Paris Commune movement by Adoplhe Thiers [haven’t bothered to figure that one out], and various “scandals” in both France and England. Another annoyance is the introduction of individuals by name, without indicating what office or even what country they represent. All of this is not really a fault of the book – which as Taylor says is not a textbook – but does mean that this should not be the first (or second, or even third) book one reads on late 19th century Europe. A final indicator of this is Taylor’s various corrections to established history. Without knowing the context, and therefore not being able to judge the accuracy of Taylor’s assertions these are not very helpful to the novice reader.

Now all that being said, I should mention that I have been looking for a good text covering this period for about a year (in used book sales, not anywhere else), and have found only this book. Again, this is a testimony to the public’s disinterest in history – and my disinterest in paying for a new book…

Ok, so it wasn’t a perfect choice, but what did I get out reading it? Actually, this was a very engaging subject and held my interest continually. Without trying to educate my reader on this period of history, let me sketch an outline. After the Napoleanic wars, Europe is dominated by four “great powers” – France, Russia, Prussia and Austria. England plays the role of a very interested, but outside, observer. All of these powers have interests of expansion involving conflicts with the interests of the others, as well as with the various lesser European powers (Denmark, Belgium, Poland [controlled by Prussia], and most significantly the Balkan states under the rule of the weakening Ottoman Empire). Peace is maintained through a delicate “Balance of Power” consisting of interlocking treaties between the four major powers. Envision a huge Cross, with Russia and France forming the East-West alliance, and Prussia and Austria forming the North-South (or Central) powers. In the late 19th century, Germany unifies under Bismark – essentially Prussia expands to subsume the German Confederacy – Austria expands into Austria-Hungary, while France and Russia remain stagnant.

Russia continually worries over who controls the Bosporus straits, which from the Black Sea form a major trade route into the Mediterranean. Constantinople (not yet Istanbul) is the key to the Straits, and the Ottoman Empire nominally owns Constantinople. Austria-Hungary eyes the territory to its southeast – the Balkan states – that remain under Ottoman control and are periodically subjected to atrocities, and threaten revolution. Russia also eyes this territory as a belle-weather on who may eventually wrest control of Constantinople from the Turks. We in the 21st century know the names of these states well – Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Hercegovina, Albania – and the underlying problems have not changed in 100 years.

Meanwhile, Germany experiences industrialization and rapid demographic expansion. France remains stagnant (which is also familiar in the 21st century), while England and Russia seek expansion of their overseas empires. Although there is friction in some areas of the world between the Powers – in the Far East between Russia and England, with France and Germany there for the ride – in Africa between France and England, with Germany playing on the sidelines – these frictions are not essential in the struggle to master Europe.

More to come.

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Fall Reading

I’ve gone through a period of reading some rather poorly-chosen books. After completing Toland’s biography of Hitler – a book I first read in high school during my first fascination with the second world war – I turned back to what I hoped would be philosophical reading. I first read Aristotle’s Rhetoric. This I found to be “Aristotelean” in the sense of there being an overall logical approach to the subject, but certainly not inspirational, nor particularly enlightening.

From there, I decided to read Francis Bacon’s Essays, including New Atlantis. It is hard to imagine that the same thinker who is credited with describing the scientific method, and is believed by some to have been the actual Shakespeare, could have written such drivel. At best, the essays are completely uninteresting. The few that have any meaningful content are overwhelmed with a very negative religious message. Perhaps the clearest statement of this religious message is his essay on Ambition, which is described essentially as a sin. Now I’d be willing to write off these essays – which are among his first published works – as coming from a young thinker. However, New Atlantis – written some 30 years later near the end of his career – is only marginally better in its message, although notably it is only a fragment of an unfinished allegory (and I can’t understand why it is considered an important work at all).

Following this unfortunate choice, I picked up a book on “the philosophy of science” that (as with most of the books I read) I found at a library book sale. This is a collection of essays by various un-famous authors writing in the 1940s and 1950s. To my dismay, I found that the center point of all of the essays I read in this book was how Relativity and Quantum Mechanics should change our viewpoint on the metaphysics of the world around us. I didn’t get far into this before stopping and putting it away.

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Coming out of the Block

I fall into the trap of wanting to post either fully-considered matters on this blog, or waiting until something truly compelling occurs to me. In this I forget my original intent for this space, which was to enable me to frequently record in writing my current ruminations, to enable the development of more carefully considered ideas – not only to record them at completion.

Part of the reason for the low activity at this blog recently has been the momentous political and economic changes that are occurring around us. Paradoxically, I’ve been unable to bring myself to write about these, for two main reasons. First, the sudden lunge toward a nationalized economy in response to the collapse of the credit market brings obvious outrage. I had nothing new to add to the disgust which others have expressed – adding my own expression of anger and dismay seemed redundant (particularly while wallowing in the trap described in my opening paragraph). The presidential election – where we faced a choice between two horrendous alternatives – was similarly lacking in ability to inspire novel thoughts. Secondly, concentrating on either of these developments leads me to an emotion of fear and despair. Although the direct effects on my life have so far been minimal, I see all too well the danger of higher taxes (whether through “tax increases” or indirectly through inflation or the denial of credit), as well as the danger of a widespread economic collapse. And so I continue to merely “monitor” the news, without inundating myself with the details, and turn elsewhere to keep intellectually active.

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