31 December 2023

Yinxu on the Mississippi——密西西比河边殷墟

As mentioned in my blog post about Ulysses S Grant yesterday, I got to visit Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site together with my in-laws. Cahokia. Immense, monumental ancient step-pyramids and earthen mounds that date back a thousand years… right at the southern tip of the American Midwest.

Cahokia, located just on the other side of the Mississippi River from St Louis, in Illinois, is a thousand-year-old archaeological site consisting of a number of large raised earthen structures, as well as the remnants of a wooden stockade and a ‘Woodhenge’—a now-reconstructed ring of 49 wooden posts which archaeologists believe to have functioned as an immense solar calendar, used to calculate the equinoxes. Monks Mound is the largest pyramid north of the Mexican border, with a base measuring 13 acres in area (equal to the Great Pyramid at Giza), 955 feet across and 775 feet wide, and currently reaching a height of 100 feet.
The Cahokia Mounds were the site of a massive urban settlement between the years 900 and 1350 AD. From the archaeological evidence it can clearly be seen to have been a thriving centre of trade, with a distinct social hierarchy, metalworking and sophisticated astronomical and agricultural methods. (Woodhenge attests to the astronomical sophistication, as does the fact that the mounds and the plaza are constructed in an ‘hourglass’ shape bounded by two strict east-west lines of construction.) It could thus be said with ease, that the middle Mississippian polity which built and lived among the mounds was a civilisation in the true sense of the word.

It was a fascinating experience to walk in the shadows of the mounds… and then to climb Monks Mound with its sweeping vistas. There is something truly numinous about standing in Cahokia, a kind of awe that I have only twice or thrice felt before in my life: at the Yinxu Archaeological Site in Anyang; at Tianzi Jia Liu in Luoyang; and standing inside the old city walls in Luoyang and Xi’an. This is not the same as religious awe, the sense of standing in the presence of the Divine. For that, I go to Divine Liturgy, or pray before icons of Christ and His Mother. It is a very different, very human and this-worldly sort of awe—the sense of standing on a spot that you knew (not just felt, or fancied, but knew) that others had stood, three, five, ten thousand years before you. Call it civilisational awe.
It is standing in just such places—yea, even in places where mass human sacrifice was conducted—that one begins to understand what Konstantin Leont’ev understood in between the lines of his philosophical and medical writings. Cultures are alive; they have life-cycles. And even when they pass out of earthly existence and memory, they leave traces behind them that one can’t help but feel. However much our modern sensibilities, our religious and humanitarian scruples (which have been not so much earned on our own merits as entailed upon us by bitter experience of past ages), might turn back upon us at the contemplation of a civilisation perpetuating itself through the infliction of violent ritual death upon its own… there is nonetheless something truly splendid and grandiose about it, a kind of stoic and sanguine beauty which pervades the remains.

It was fascinating to walk amid this ancient monument, this millennium-old testament left by a pre-contact Indigenous civilisation, together with three Chinese people who are very near and dear to me. What was interesting in particular to me was how close the ancient sites of their own intimate knowledge were to the fore of their minds as we walked together.
Their first thought, also, was to liken the place to Yinxu, and also to the Bingmayong. The cruelty—the picturesque cruelty, the cruelty of fell beauty—of a Shang state perpetuated by mass human sacrifice, or of the First Qin Emperor who built a great Wall partly with the blood and bones of the men that he ruled, posed a ready parallel to what one might see at Mound 72. Hundreds of virgin maidens, exquisitely arrayed in marine shells, and then slain and arrayed at the southernmost point of the complex, their remains aligned in perfect reverence with the cardinal directions, the eternal tracks of sun and moon and season, giving life and death in their turn…

And what right have we, we shallow and arrogant children, we neonates in the grand scheme, to pass judgement upon this civilisation or those who inherited it? What do we know of what is sacred, or of what is true or what is correct? What price have we paid for that knowledge? Let’s give Nietzsche his due and acknowledge it: nowhere close to a price high enough, assuredly. Today we palefaces wax sentimental and lachrymose over the fate of the idealised Native American, with his fading ethic of spiritual and environmental harmony… yet we have no deep understanding by what route, by what autochthonous root in fact, the Indigenous peoples of this continent have come to such an ethic.
The stately, bloody grandeur of the Cahokia Mounds, even in its ruined current state, speaks still in resounding echoes of its former colossal resplendence, followed by its equally titanic collapse… this was the price, these were the conditions under which the Dakota and their cousin-nations learned what wisdom they still hold about the necessity of humility in the face of nature, about the need to honour one’s connectedness to others before the Creator. And the ancestors of the Lakota and Dakota, of the Kansa and Ponca, of the Ho-Chunk, the Choctaw and the Creek—they earned that wisdom, and carefully tended it down the generations, easily over 150 years before the white man ever laid eyes on the silver banks of the Mississippi.

The posited prehistoric connexions between the Han Chinese and the Indigenous peoples of this continent may be vastly overstated. But what is true, is that the Chinese civilisation and the heirs to the Cahokian civilisation (let’s not be coy and pretend that we don’t know who they are, or that they aren’t still with us today), share a great deal in common, when it comes to having dealt with the life-cycle of their civilisations. Let’s not whitewash those similarities, and still less downplay them or sentimentalise them or moralise them. Let us face them as they are.

If these ruminations on Cahokia strike one as too pre-Christian, too radical-reactionary, too culturally-maximalist, too elegiac of premodern brutality—in short, too Leont’evian—good. I want people to feel at least a glimmer of the mingled discomfort and awe that I felt as I led my feet and legs carefully along the tended paths, between and among the mortuary grounds and the hallowed heights of those ancient mounds.

30 December 2023

Ulysses S Grant: fighter, lover, honourable profligate

I am currently writing this blog post from the great south Midwestern town of St Louis, Missouri, where my family and I are planning to bring in the New Year. It had been our hope—to this point, not a disappointed one—that the stratospheric conditions would be amenable to a mild and restful holiday. Today, we visited (a safe distance after the winter solstice) the Mississippian holy site of the Cahokia Mounds—which may be the subject of a blog post in the near future. We also visited the farm which belonged to Civil War hero and former US President Ulysses S Grant.

I am prompted to write this post on account of the fluctuating posthumous historical fortunes of a number of American figures in public life. It’s a foregone conclusion, for example, that the reputation of Alexander Hamilton is far more positive in the present day, on account of a certain neoliberal Broadway non-talent, than it was thirty or even twenty years ago. (And this: for one of the right reasons and a hell of a lot of wrong ones.) It strikes me that Grant is another, similar victim of the historiographical ‘swing’ which began in earnest in the Obama era. And the national monument dedicated to his memory seems fully committed to this ‘swing’ and a revisionist view of its subject… for better and for worse.

It has been customary to view Grant, possibly under the influence of the Dunning school of American historiography, as a drunkard, a butcher, a fool and a failure. To its great credit, the Ulysses S Grant National Historical Site here in St Louis does a thorough and creditable job, drawing from primary sources, to deflate some of these caricatured assessments.
Apart from one unfortunate bout in his younger years as a distinctly-unhappy minor officer stationed far away from his beloved family at Fort Humboldt, Grant’s relationship with alcohol was a distinctly moderate and temperate one. Far from being a fool, Grant had a natural cunning and understanding of military strategy, as well as a distinct streak of stubborn tenacity, which manifested itself in his victorious career during the Civil War. And as for being a failure… that is a distinct matter of perspective. Certainly Grant’s efforts to manage Southern Reconstruction met with less than stellar results. And as for economic policy… well, we’ll get to that later. Suffice it to say for now, that I do not share the National Park Service’s rosy view of Grant in that regard. However, he did manage to bring the American military campaigns against the Plains Indians to a satisfactory close, and began the slow, fitful, rocky and still-incomplete process of finding a tolerable place for the Indigenous peoples in postbellum American society that did not involve genocide.

But the National Park Service, aussi dans l’air du temps, swings far, far too hard in the opposite direction. They portray Grant in what I would consider to be nigh-hagiographical terms, according to a certain civic-religious sensibility. A saint—yea, a racial visionary far ‘ahead of his time’ in terms of his treatment of the African-American, a stoic patriot of monumental proportions, a military genius, an even-handed diplomat of a distinctly liberal temper, and a devoted gallant and family man whose final and overriding concern was for his beloved wife and children. If he had certain flaws, they are incidental failings, ones which can be explained by temporary quirks or established habits of the culture he grew up in… or else they are endearing, mild faults, like being too trusting of political allies and business partners too eager to take advantage of his largesse for their own ends. The picture which the National Parks Service paints of the man begins with his manumission of William Jones, and ends with his deathbed bequest of the proceeds of his dictated memoirs to his faithful Julia and their four precious children.
Insofar as one can draw something like this picture from the primary sources… well and good. And I certainly understand the desire to portray a beloved native son in his very best possible light. But bringing my own ‘lens’ and background knowledge of Grant and his times to bear, I came away from his monument with a rather different picture of man and legacy than the one which the National Park Service sought to impress upon me. For me, President Grant is neither blackguard nor saint, neither bleary-eyed dullard nor Moses on the interracial mountaintop, but indeed precisely a man of his time and his culture—with some very distinct and (again, to my own view) highly blameworthy and inexcusable flaws.

What is interesting to me is how, culturally, Grant comes off very much so as a man of the backcountry South. More specifically, he comes off as an Appalachian—a ‘born fighter’ after the ethnographic portrait of his tribe painted by former US Senator Jim Webb. Grant’s father Jesse Root was born in the solidly-Appalachian Pennsylvania hinterland, and he married and sired Hiram Ulysses by a Scots-Irish Presbyterian girl, Hannah Simpson. Grant himself was born in Point Pleasant, which belongs solidly in the Cincinnati foothill zone of southern Ohio and is probably best considered a part of the American South in its own right.

In his early life especially—though his early habits foreshadow in many respects his behaviour in later life—Hiram Ulysses talks, behaves and reacts like a hillbilly (in the very best and noblest of senses). Our young Ulysses demonstrates many of the best characteristic features of Appalachian culture: aggressively independent; highly opinionated; dedicated to a deep individual internal sense of right; fiercely and even fanatically devoted to his friends, family, faith and flag. One sees this intriguing mix of traits particularly in his relationship with the (Deep Southern) Dents. Ulysses was deeply committed to his friendship to Fred Dent, enough to stay for extended periods of time with Dent’s family and work there. He grew even more closely, and touchingly, devoted to Fred’s younger sister Julia—whom he later married. Yet he often got into heated, even explosive, arguments over the subject of slavery with his host (later father-in-law). Ulysses had inherited both his father Jesse Root’s abolitionist convictions and a particularly hotheaded way of expressing them: for both of which Dent, slave-owning plantation patriarch that he was, had no use whatsoever. Very often young Julia was the one left mediating these arguments and preventing them from coming to blows.
Ulysses and Julia Grant enjoyed probably one of the most touchingly tender and enduring romances ever to grace the White House. Their initial attraction was probably born out of common interests: Ulysses Grant had a deep and abiding love for horses, and Julia Dent was an avid equestrian in her youth. But—‘for ought that I could ever read, could ever hear by tale or history, the course of true love never did run smooth’—and this of old Bill’s observations certainly held in regard to these two. First of all there was the age gap: when they met, Ulysses was 20 and Julia 16; at his first proposal Julia turned him down because she felt she wasn’t mature enough to reciprocate his feelings. Then there was the problem of their families. Initially neither the Dents nor the Grants gave the union their approval—owing largely to the differences in class and political convictions between the two fathers. Grant’s failures in business placed the young family under considerable financial strain, and later his placement at various military postings often drew him away from Julia. But their bond was strengthened by the fact that they carried on regular and frequent correspondence, of which many of the letters from Grant’s side survive.

Ulysses took the characteristically Appalachian career choice of joining the military in his youth, graduating from West Point with no particular academic distinction, though he did devoted and admirable service in the Mexican War (which he later recalled with some chagrin as a pointless imperialistic adventure). Yet being posted far from his beloved Julia took a toll on him—prompting his one youthful alcoholic bout which sadly dogged his later career. It was in his military career, in the Mexican War as well as later in the Civil War, where he displayed yet another pair of typically-Appalachian traits: tenacity and vengefulness.
Grant had written on his bones the law of the feudal Scots, which dictates that if someone hits you, you hit them back harder so they can’t do it again. He lived his military (and, in some instances, later political) career by this principle. He distinguished himself at Fort Donelson by staging a ruthless and unrelenting counterattack against a Confederate sortie, against his superior officer’s orders, and would not be satisfied with anything less than an unconditional surrender of the fort by its Confederate commander. His performance in the Battle of Shiloh also followed this pattern. The first day of the battle, on 6 April, commanded on the Union side by Sherman and Prentiss and McClernand, was an utter débâcle and a total human waste: the single bloodiest battle, in terms of American lives, of this or any other American war. Grant noted in his writings that one could walk across the clearing from one end to the other treading only on fallen bodies, with one’s feet never touching the ground. Yet, in Grant’s typical style, his order for Buell and Wallace the following morning was: to hit the Confederates back at once, and hit them hard. And early in the morning on 7 April, that is exactly what the Union troops did: surprising the Confederates at the captured Union camp before breakfast, and fighting them to a bloody rout throughout the afternoon. At the end of the day, over 23,000 soldiers lay dead at Shiloh.

Ironically, it was precisely for this archetypically Southern personality trait in Grant, that later Southern historians would revile him as a ‘butcher’. Yet I do not count this as sin on his part. Grant fought his fights with honour and tenacity. Intriguingly, particularly from a monument in Missouri, it is not for these traits that he is chiefly remembered now, but instead for his (equally-controversial) policy of accepting African-American recruits under his command. The National Park Service credits this to Grant’s racial egalitarianism, and there is indeed a good case to be made there from Grant’s letters. Yet it needs to be remembered also that Greater Appalachian culture was broadly (if imperfectly) equalitarian in this respect—if one could handle a gun, black or white, he was welcome to join a fight.
From the other side, I think, certain assertions of Grant’s ‘bigotry’ against various groups—Irish and German Catholics, for example, and Jews—fail to take this aspect of his personality into account. Grant was liable to lash out, often unfairly and in sweeping terms, against people whom he thought had wronged him. He joined (for the length of a single week, before walking out in disgust) the ‘American Party’, better known as the Know-Nothings. This happened after, and because, he was precipitously rejected from a civil service vacancy in St Louis, which Grant attributed to a conspiracy on the part of the Irish and German Catholic residents of the town. And his indefensibly antisemitic General Order 11 during the War, expelling all Jews from the states under his military command, was issued in response to certain specific unscrupulous Jews like the Mack brothers who, unfortunately, actually were in the business of smuggling Confederate cotton into the North and undermining the war effort. Adding a personal angle to this order, Grant may have been particularly incensed that the Mack brothers had inveigled his own father, Jesse Root Grant, in their shady business.

What fascinates me, rather, is Grant’s magnanimous posture toward Lee and toward the Confederate armies, after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. His terms were more than generous. If there was any basis for considering Grant a saint, that basis would be best in evidence here: his offer to the Confederate soldiery to keep their horses, their arms and their freedom after their surrender and demobilisation was practically unprecedented anywhere. Grant’s offer of peace to Lee was a gesture of noblesse oblige more easily credited to a medieval chevalier, or a particularly-saintly Kievan Rus’ boyar. One is tempted to think that Lincoln’s vision of a lasting peace without rancour between the North and the South reintegrated under the same Union made a deep impression on Grant.

Grant’s overall plan for Southern Reconstruction was, in my view, also saintly—though that plan’s actual implementation considerably less so. It’s true that this vision was considerably hampered by Andrew Johnson’s far less-egalitarian model for Reconstruction, and later by the politics of racial backlash and domestic terrorism which undid much of Grant’s work. But it’s generally true that Grant’s continuous desire was to lift up the South in an image of reconciliation and racial equality-of-opportunity, coordinate with Lincoln’s direction indicated in the Second Inaugural. This high value that he set on reconciliation and peace is one which followed him into his negotiations with the Plains Indians and the wise (if belated) halt he put on the extermination campaign the US Army was waging on them in the American West; and into his foreign policy endeavours elsewhere in the world. His attempt to resolve the standoff between Qing China and Meiji Japan over the Ryûkyû Islands, though ultimately unsuccessful (much to the sad fate of the Ryûkyûan people themselves), was nonetheless guided by the high value he set on peace and mediated agreement.
Now… up to this point my interpretation of Grant’s cultural background and its influence on his decisions sits together fairly comfortably with the National Park Service’s view of him, though it offers a somewhat different colour to the Union general’s rationality and decision-making process. When it comes to Grant’s presidency, my assessment of him notably diverges from that which the National Park Service provides. I do not view Grant as a particularly successful or praiseworthy president.

My assessment rests primarily on account of his stubborn attachment to the gold standard, and his concurrent hostility to the greenback movement. What is true is that the popular perception of Grant as personally corrupt simply does not stand up to scrutiny. On the other hand, it is undeniable that as president, his policies viciously squandered the brief window for a truly democratic economy which President Lincoln’s far-sighted soft-money policies opened, rendered the Panic of 1873 inevitable… and inescapably favoured corrupt interests, plutocracy and the concentration of Money Power in the United States. Both the right-wing racist Democratic backlash in the Deep South, and the left-wing Populist insurgency in the Midwest and Upper South, can in some measure be attributed to Grant’s blockhead approach to economics. What’s more, Grant’s late-life personal financial misfortunes, which the National Park Service presents tragically as the result of Grant’s trusting nature, mirror precisely his poor management of the national economy.

Grant simply did not have the same experimental temperament that Lincoln did, a willingness to play with new ideas. Lincoln was open and welcoming, for example, to the advice of Illinois Col. Dick Taylor in 1862 when it came to financing the war effort with greenbacks (government-issued promissory notes not backed by specie in precious metals), in a way that Grant evidently had not been the year before. What Abraham Lincoln, along with his ingenious Treasury secretary Salmon Portland Chase, handed to the American people, was a currency system that could be responsive to their own growing productive capacity, rather than hitched to a commodity medium that fluctuated in value, and whose price fluctuations stood to benefit primarily the (wealthy) holders of the medium. Sadly, the holders of specie—and the industrial and usury-financial caste they represented—militated against this pro-producer, pro-farmer, pro-labour currency system from the very beginning.

Grant’s understanding of economic and monetary policy, unfortunately, was always fairly shallow. He understood it in the same moralistic terms that many other ordinary people, both North and South, did. Gold was gold, and had to be honoured as such anywhere, whereas the promises of a government printed on a piece of paper were considered to be somehow dishonourable. When considering his Appalachian cultural proclivity toward a certain valence of honour, in timocratic terms, this interpretation of specie-versus-greenbacks gains further force. Just as with General Order 11, this explanation is not meant to stand in as excuse, but perhaps to shed some light on its psychological meaning for him.
Unfortunately, this attitude toward gold as the only acceptable basis for an American monetary policy created a series of escalating problems for Grant that only worsened as he tried to correct course. His attempts to break the Johnsonian gridlock over the greenback question and steer the American economy back toward a ‘sound-money’ basis, resulted directly in a legislative demonetarisation of silver in 1873, which later produced a bank run that same year. This ‘Crime of ‘73’ was seized on by advocates of silver currency (themselves no better on this question than the goldbugs, largely being silver mine owners in the far West and other middle- to upper-middle-class holders of silver specie) as proof of Grant’s economic incompetence. Several subsequent legislative ‘fixes’ meant to ease the nation into a ‘resumption’ of payments in gold specie, served only to kick the can down the road, and send the nation into a prolonged economic slump… despite several (vetoed) attempts by soft-money advocates and their sympathisers (dismissed and derided as ‘inflationists’) to jumpstart the national economy by tabling the specie question and queueing a fresh legislative injection of greenback currency into the system.

One can easily imagine from this how people reacted. Grant’s Reconstruction policies, however well-intentioned, were viciously attacked by racist demagogues in the South who seized on the worsening plight of poor farmers with nothing but greenbacks to their name. They scapegoated blacks and Northern educators as agents of Grantian corruption, and these foul parasitic ‘Redeemer’ Democrats waged an unremitting campaign of beatings, rapes, murders and organised domestic terror against them, destroying the Reconstruction governments of their respective states through brute violence.
Elsewhere in the nation, third-party advocates of the greenback and the democratic promise behind it struggled to get their message out regarding the causes of the economic slump… with limited electoral success largely confined to the Midwest American states. But a consistent pro-greenback message would be sent only in the 1880s with the rise of the People’s Party (which enjoyed considerable popularity in the American South when plain people started to realise that the race-baiting Democratic promises of ‘redemption’ were no better than Republican ones).

Grant’s reputation suffered in his second term, not on account of any corruption on his part (the accusations of corruption were always only a politically-convenient distraction), but rather on account of his invincibly-clueless approach to the monetary question. The golden bullet-wound to the leg with which Grant was determined to hobble the American economy continued to bleed through the rest of his term and into that of Hayes. Yet, stunningly, and continuing in the same vein of economic illiteracy and idiocy that Grant was mired in, the National Park Service lauds him for having ‘paved the way for the resumption of specie payment, reestablished a sound currency, and provided the basis for the orderly growth of the American economy’! Yikes. I suppose this is one way to sidestep the problem of America’s lost decade, especially if you’re out to determine that Grant was a man ‘ahead of his time’.
In his private life, too, Grant’s gormless but ‘honourable’ approach to questions of finance left him an easy mark for dishonourable men to come and cheat him. Grant’s son Buck introduced his father to a certain Wall Street broker (and, as it would turn out, notorious con man) Ferdinand Ward, along with a certain banker who underwrote his schemes named James Fish. Grant was convinced to lay out most of his personal fortunes in Ward’s shell game, and even used a personal loan from Vanderbilt to keep Ward’s firm afloat when it was clear it was going belly-up. Ward absconded with all of Grant’s money and left him penniless and in deep debt at the very end of his life. The only way that Grant, dying of throat cancer, could manage to keep his family solvent and out of penury, was to sell his memoirs (a task with which he received significant help from a certain modestly-successful author and satirist by the name of Sam Clemens).

There is much in Grant’s biography for one to admire. One may, and should, point to his ability to take principled stands even when doing so affected him adversely, as a mark of his high character. One may also point to his tenacity and cunning as a strategist and a fighting man, a true son of Appalachia. And one may justly point to his tender relationship with Julia Dent and his manifest devotion to his children. But the man was not without certain critical blind spots and flaws particularly on economic matters: flaws for which his presidential reputation has, to a certain degree deservedly, suffered.