Essay: American History 1600-1877

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[. . .] They are Eli Whitney, John Brown, and Judah P. Benjamin.

Eli Whitney is usually regarded as a great industrial innovator, although during his lifetime he was mostly a failure financially. He is known for two great innovations, and it is worth considering both of them. The first was Whitney's claim to have introduced the idea of interchangeable parts into American manufacturing: in reality, this idea had been around for a while, and Whitney's claim was a triumph of self-promotion rather than engineering. However the actual patent that secured Whitney's fame -- and merits him for inclusion as one of the worst influences in American history -- was the cotton gin. At the time Whitney introduced the cotton gin, the institution of slavery had been growing steadily more unprofitable and was considered likely to collapse on its own as an unsustainable system. The cotton gin, however, changed the institution of slavery: it made it profitable. Although we routinely celebrate engineers and inventors, there has always been a consistent critique of the human costs of industrialization. Essentially Whitney's invention was able to turn plantation slavery into an efficient and profitable factory system, and there is every reason to believe that the explosion of "King Cotton" in the antebellum South was responsible for worsening slavery and was a result of the cotton gin itself.

The bad influence of John Brown is easily understood from the standpoint of 2014 -- in contemporary terms, Brown was basically a religiously-motivated terrorist. Both of Brown's significant contributions to American history -- Bleeding Kansas and Harper's Ferry -- are regrettable stains on the national memory. It does not matter that Brown's moral claims about the evils of slavery were prescient: Frederick Douglass could advance the same moral claims without killing people. In reality Brown was a deranged individual who was hoping to start a war, and when he failed to do so in Kansas he essentially accomplished his goal in West Virginia. But Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry was never likely to have any real world effect, except to persuade the South that their most paranoid suspicions about Northerners were correct. It is possible that the secession crisis could have been settled without the firing of shots at Fort Sumter if Brown had not already effectively militarized the country by his terrorist acts.

Finally, in assessing the actual conduct of the U.S. Civil War, it would be possible to single out many in the Confederacy as having had a particularly bad moral influence on the nation. However Judah P. Benjamin is an interesting and under-known example, and served as both Confederate Secretary of War and Confederate Secretary of State, before fleeing to Europe at the war's conclusion. The reason for Benjamin's infamy is due to several facts. His primary strategy was an attempt to get Europe to support the Confederacy, and it can be argued that his diplomatic efforts were able to keep England from intervening on the side of the Union, even if he did not succeed in getting England to openly endorse the Confederate cause. But the reliance of England's textile industry on Confederate cotton meant that the one imperial power that could have affected the Civil War from the outside was effectively sidelined. But one reason why Benjamin is somewhat odd among the Confederate leadership is that he was, unusually, Jewish. Considering that Judaism is a religion that celebrates its own release from slavery in Egypt in the annual Passover ceremony, it seems particularly noxious that Benjamin should have made himself the chief public spokesman for this evil institution.

In conclusion, these three figures each had a bad effect on the life of the nation. Although certainly other candidates are well-known, the immoral qualities that they exemplified -- placing profit over human life in the case of Eli Whitney's cotton gin, devoting oneself to ideological violence in the case of John Brown, and hypocritical defense of immoral policies in the case of Judah P. Benjamin -- are all still around in the twenty-first century. Companies that pollute groundwater through fracking are the equivalent of an inventor finding a way to make slavery profitable. Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph are the moral heirs to John Brown. And Benjamin's war policies would have made him at home in George W. Bush's cabinet. As a result of the particularly contemporary resonance of these three figures in the U.S. Civil War, they can serve as examples of the worst tendencies in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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