Day By Day

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

This Day In History

Today is "Housewife's Day" -- a time to show your appreciation for the stay-at-home wives who reject the feminist mantra and take on themselves the awesome responsibility of providing a rich and nurturing environment for their families and ensuring that the next generation of Americans is raised with strong character and sound basic values.

You go girls!

On this day in the past there were a lot of elections to note. Grant, McKinley, LBJ, Clinton -- you know, people like that.

Happy Birthday to John Montague. What's that you say? Never heard of him? You all know his contribution to modern life. He was the fourth Earl of Sandwich and, so the story goes, was so addicted to gambling that he had no time to sit down to a proper meal. So when hungry he would simply have a servant slap two pieces of bread around a hunk of meat for him to consume. This culinary treat was called..., wait for it, a "sandwich". The story is probably apocryphal and Montague was by no means the first to eat bread and meat together -- the practice had been around since time immemorial, but Sandwich's preference for the treat, and Gibbon's recording of it, helped to introduce the practice to polite British society.

Today marks the birth in Philadelphia [1831] of one of the most eccentric major figures in American political and literary history. His name was Ignatius Loyola Donnelly. A graduate of Central High School, he studied law under Benjamin Brewster [later Attorney General of the United States] and was admitted to the bar in 1852 and started to build political connections. So far, so good, but the weirdness soon began to emerge. He got involved with some shady communal home-building schemes and, to escape prosecution for financial scandals, fled Philly for the wilds of Minnesota. There he became a founder of a utopian community called Nininger City. The idea was to attract immigrants to the frontier and to organize them into a farming cooperative in which private property would be abolished. The community was poorly conceived, poorly run, and collapsed into financial ruin within a matter of months. Donnelly then entered politics and was elected Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, then served in Congress during the Civil War and was then elected to the State Senate. In office his two big issues were protecting the civil rights of blacks in the post-war South and women's suffrage. Nobody seemed to pay any attention to his past financial scandals. In Minnesota, it seems, social justice rhetoric and hostility to capitalism could carry you a long way. It still can, witness Senator Franken's career.

In 1878 Donnelly returned to law practice and began to set his ideas down on paper. This is where he became seriously weird. His magnum opus was Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, published in 1882. In it he argued that all human civilizations originated in a sunken continent located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There, he supposed, Aryans led by enlightened kings ruled a vast and productive agricultural society, followed a simple Solar religion under the leadership of a caste of priestly scientists, and sent forth colonists to populate the earth. From Atlantis came all religion, all science, all wisdom. The book was enormously popular and contributed to a number of cultic enthusiasms like "Mayanism" which currently is having a revival with regard to predictions of impending doom. He followed this up with a second book, Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, in which he argued that the passage of a comet through the solar system had caused all the great catastrophes of history. This book had a big influence on Immanuel Velikovsky, who enjoyed a cult status by making similar claims in the Twentieth Century. He then wrote a book claiming that all of Shakespeare's works were actually written by Francis Bacon. You get the idea -- Donnelly gained financial success as the spokesman and publicist for just about any far out idea that was floating around in Nineteenth Century America.

Donnelly's political affiliations were equally unorthodox. He began as a Republican, then switched to the Democratic Party, and then campaigned as an Independent. In the 1880's he helped to organize the Farmers Alliance -- a precursor to the Peoples Party that advocated the reorganization of agriculture into cooperatives, inflation of the currency, government takeover of transportation and agriculture-related industries, and an alliance of the farmers and workers, the "productive" classes, to topple the power of the "parasite" classes [stock traders, bankers, gamblers, lawyers, and the like]. As with earlier cooperative movements the Alliance was economically unsuccessful and with its collapse Donnelly moved on to the Populist crusade. He wrote the Preamble to the Peoples' Party Omaha Platform in 1892. It contained these sentiments:
The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.
Read the whole thing here.

Does that sound familiar? Of course it does. Donnelly continued his involvement in Populist politics and in 1900 was nominated by the Peoples Party as their Vice Presidential candidate. He lost, then ran for the Governor of Minnesota and lost again. By that time his health was in steep decline and he died within a year.

And a very "Happy Birthday" to some other Pennsylvania notables: Actor and Hollywood tough guy Charles Bronson [1922 in Ehrenfeld] Dennis Miller [1953 in Pittsburgh] comedian and radio host extraordinaire, and also to "Larry "The Easton Assassin" Holmes, [1978] former Heavyweight Champion of the World.