Day By Day

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

This Day In History

Today is "Make Your Dream Come True Day" during which you are urged to do something concrete to realize your goals and dreams. The observance seems to have originated in the self-help motivational movement and, in most cases, it seems to be a good idea, but I have a nagging thought: What if the dreamer is Osama bin Laden? What if he is John Wayne Gacy? What if she is Nancy Pelosi?

On this date in 1846 President James K. Polk ordered General [and future president] Zachary Taylor to move 4,000 troops to the Texas border. This was an extremely provocative move. Ten years earlier Texas had won its independence from Mexico, had been recognized by the United States, Britain and France, and had applied for admission into the union. Mexico at the time made it clear that annexation of Texas would mean war. The threat worked and successive administrations rejected Texas' applications for annexation.

Then in 1844 James Polk campaigned for president promising, among other things, to annex Texas and once in office he proceeded to push for annexation and on December 29, 1845 Texas became a State of the Union. In retaliation, Mexico immediately broke diplomatic relations with the U. S. Fearing that war was imminent Polk ordered General Taylor to moved thousands of U.S. troops into Texas.

There remained a question of borders. Texas claimed that its southern boundary lay along the Rio Grande. Mexico, however, claimed that its northern border lay far to the north along the Nueces River. This left a large tract of land in dispute. Attempts to resolve the problem diplomatically failed, largely because of instability in the Mexican government.

The weakness of the Mexican government was attracting the attention of European powers. Britain, France, and Russia were all expressing an interest in taking over parts of Mexico, particularly California. Polk decided that the situation was too dangerous to be allowed to fester, so he took decisive action. He ordered General Taylor to move his troops south to the Rio Grande which, to Mexican eyes, was an invasion of their territory. This act provoked a Mexican response in which American troops were killed. This incident, along with the collapse of diplomacy led Polk to go to Congress for a declaration of war. The result was the Mexican-American War.

Entering the building: Horatio Alger, Jr. [1832]. Alger was one of the most influential authors in American history. He churned out widely popular juvenile fiction that had as its recurring theme the journey from "rags to riches" -- the rise of an individual from poverty to middle-class respectability. In Alger's books the hero is a young man who, although impoverished, displays strong middle-class virtues such as diligence, honesty, frugality, industry, etc. It is not these virtues alone, though, that enable the hero to escape his miserable circumstances, he needs a break. This is usually an incident that allows him to display extraordinary courage or conspicuous honesty that attracts the attention of a wealthy older man who then takes the boy into his home and provides for him.

Many cultural historians have argued that Alger's fiction expresses the individualistic, optimistic ethos of nineteenth century America -- the age of the "self-made man" -- but that is hard to reconcile with the recurrent themes of mentoring and happenstance that we find these stories. It is not hard work and honesty that propels Alger's heroes into the middle class, it is luck and the benevolence of older men.

It is probably better to recognize that these stories are Alger's personal fantasies. He was a homosexual pederast who sought sexual gratification with poor children. Today he would be stigmatized as a sexual predator, but it is more likely that he was the prey. Much of his income from selling his books was taken from him, often stolen, by the poor children with whom he consorted. He wound up impoverished and being supported by relatives.

You can read one of his most famous stories, Ragged Dick, Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks [1868] here.