Monthly Archives: March 2011

This Day in History 3/31: Ferdinand and Isabella issue the Edict of Expulsion

Copy of the Spanish edict of expulsion

The 1492 Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion. Image via Wikipedia

The last thing I would want is to live in a place where everyone was exactly like me.

So it seems both funny and tragic that two industrious European monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, had no problem with this.

The push for homogeneity, for sameness, does often lead to traquility and a life of familiarity.   However, the overzealous iron fist of sameness can cause irreparable damage, both for the majority and for the minority that is now outcast.

This was the case on March 31, 1492, when the Catholic monarchs of Spain issued a decree that would reverberate over three continents.  Less than three months after vanquishing the last vestiges of Islamic Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella issued what was called the Alhambra Decree, later called the Edict of Expulsion.  It declared that the Jews of Spain, a community that thrived on the Iberian peninsula since Roman times, had four months to liquidate their belongings and leave the country.  Those who did not would face death.

For centuries, Jews had lived in communities in present-day Spain, first under the Romans after the Third Jewish Revolt of the 2nd century, and subsequently under the Visigoths and Islamic Moors.  Jewish Spain flourished most under Muslim rule: the caliphs of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) saw the Jews as fellow “People of the Book.”  They were given special status, allowed to operate businesses and own land, and especially to worship with little interference from Muslim authorities.  Since the Jews were an ethnic as well as religious group, there was little fear of the conversions and evangelization with Christian communities.

Even as the Christian kingdoms of the peninsula gained prominence, Jews continued to live their life and worship, providing massive contributions to Iberian culture.  Often, Jewish communities were the most literate, and local princes and sultans employed Jewish scribes that produced reams of edicts, writs and decrees–often in Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew.  Jewish bankers and merchants helped keep the warring kingdoms solvent with trade and loans (often to the irritation of local religious zealots who saw Jews as mere usurers).  Spanish Jews excelled in diplomacy, art, literature, science and philosophy through luminaries such as Maimonides, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Yehuda Halevi.

However, little by little, attitudes towards Jews in Spain began to change.

Once in a while, even during the Muslim period, occasional massacres and banishments of Jews occurred, as rulers (who often could not–or would not–repay their loans to their Jewish creditors) placed Jews under more intense scrutiny.  Land would eventually be taken away.  Jews would be restricted to certain neighborhoods in certain cities.  Jewish businesses were ransacked, synagogues were defiled, and pressure to convert or emigrate became ever greater.

Then came Ferdinand and Isabella.

The dynamic duo of medieval Iberia came with an agenda: unite the peninsula under one crown, one language, and especially one “true” Catholic faith.  As the military might of Castile and Aragon brought the neighboring states to heel (a movement known as the Reconquista), the Catholic Monarchs had to contend with large populations of minorities, especially Jews.  There is no exact number of Jews that came under Spanish rule: estimates range from 250,000 to almost 900,000.  The Christian Spaniards viewed these people with suspicion and contempt, especially since they were portrayed as collaborators to the Muslim caliphs–a gross misinterpretation since the caliphs also engaged in occasional anti-Semitic abuse.

Thousands of Jews sought to escape persecution through conversion to Christianity.  These conversos often resumed their original status with the veneer of Catholic baptism, which infuriated local Christians.  Also, many conversos were suspected of not being genuinely loyal to the church, but rather of keeping their Judaic religious practices in secret.  These crypto-Jews, known as marranos, were seen as an even bigger threat, a Fifth Column that undermined the unity of the new Catholic Spain.

Starting in 1480, the Spanish Inquisition was instituted to solve the problem of the conversos.  Headed by Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisition’s mission was to root out heresy, including any suspected secret Jewish activity on the part of the newly converted.  Reams have been written about the horrors and abuses of the Inquisition, yet it needs to be said that not a single out-and-out practicing Jew was targeted.  The Inquisition was not concerned with Jews who stayed true to Judaism, but rather those who wanted to be Catholic out of “convenience.”

Ferdinand and Isabella would take care of the observant Jews personally.  For lack of a better pun, the Edict of Expulsion was their “final solution” to their Jewish problem.

The edict gave Jews about four months to sell all their belongings and leave Spain.  Any non-Jew who aided in hiding a Jewish person was punished by confiscation of property and rescinding of privileges.  Jews who did not leave were put to death.  During the four-month preparation period, Jews were under royal protection and could take their belongings except “”gold or silver or minted money.”

Expulsion of Jews in Europe 1100-1600. Image via Wikipedia

Of the 200,000 to 800,000 Jews who left in 1492, many settled in North Africa.  Some went to neighboring Portugal, only to be expelled five years later.  The Spanish Jews would then find refuge in Italy, in the Balkans, in Greece, and eventually in England, the Netherlands and the New World of the Americas.  In the case of the Americas, the Inquisition often followed the Jews into Latin America, thus further forcing other migrations into North America and Canada.

So what did Ferdinand and Isabella gain in this act?  Though Spain would remain a predominantly Catholic country for the rest of its history, it is a homogeneity fed by theft, torture and murder–and the loss of two rich, sophisticated cultures in the process.

There were still conversos to consider, and their allegiance would remain suspect for centuries.  The missionary zeal of Torquemada would stretch into Spain’s new colonies in America; leaving men such as Bartholome de las Casas to document the tragic results.  The property, businesses and riches of the expelled Jews mingled with new gold and silver from Mexico and Peru in the royal coffers.  Synagogues were transformed into churches.  Hebrew texts were destroyed.  In the early 1600s, it was the Muslims’ turn, as thousands of moriscos, or Islamic converts to Christianity, would go down the same dark path as the Jews.

So what happened to the expelled Jews?

Like their kindred spread across numerous continents, the Jews of Spain provided far more than they received from the countries that hosted them.  In England, Jews welcomed under Oliver Cromwell would help cement England’s maritime power.  In the Netherlands, Spanish Jews would rise in the tolerant society of the Dutch Republic, and help spread trade and ideas to Asia and the New World.  In the Americas, Jews would gain a foothold and create among the most free societies on the planet.

Baruch Spinoza, Benjamin Cardozo, Benjamin Disraeli, and many others made great advances in philosophy, in law, in politics and government.

Yet the great lesson of the Expulsion is not what was lost or gained, but what survived.  In the end, Ferdinand and Isabella failed in their xenophobic quest to rid Christendom of “heretical” influences.  They failed because the heresies–namely Judaism and Islam–are still alive and well.

The Jews were not crushed, they were not annihilated–and not for lack of trying.  They survived, and their culture survived to enrich and progress humankind even today.  None other than the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote the following:

“What is the Jew?…What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish. What is this Jew whom they have never succeeded in enticing with all the enticements in the world, whose oppressors and persecutors only suggested that he deny (and disown) his religion and cast aside the faithfulness of his ancestors?!

The Jew – is the symbol of eternity. … He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear. The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.”

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Student Historian Internship at the New-York Historical Society

 

DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828) visionary NY politician, founder of the New-York Historical Society, avatar and guardian angel of Mr. D’s Neighborhood

Yes, Virginia, there are teenage students out there who would prefer to dive into musty museum exhibits and artifacts instead of making money for a car or a prom dress.

These teenagers are history nuts, just like those who are regular readers here at the Neighborhood.  Thankfully, the New-York Historical Society offers summer internships to satisfy the Ivy League professor in all of them.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the Society, New York’s oldest museum going back to 1804.  Their rotating exhibits, and the upstairs attic collection, offer a feast of the eyes and the intellect.  Unfortunately, the Society is undegoing a massive renovation that will be completed November 10.  So for many high schoolers in the tri-state area, the Summer Historian internship at N-YHS offers the only way they can interact with the museum’s collection before graduation and college.

The Internship is open to all 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in the tri-state area, thanks to a grant from the Pinkerton Foundation.   If you’re a city kid, it gets better: NYC high schoolers are eligible for PAID internships, with compensation provided (not sure whether its a one-shot stipend or a weekly check thing).  If you don’t get one of those, city students will still be eligible for the unpaid internships available to out-of-city students.

There are two internships, one for the summer and one for the school year.  The summer internship is what’s open now: according to the N-YHS website, participants will be interning Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 am to 4:45 pm, July 5-August 11.  Furthermore, interns will be involved in the following:

  • Researching art, artifacts, and documents from the N-YHS collection to create guides, tours, and videos for museum visitors and the N-YHS website
  • Meeting with experts from the museum and library departments to discuss both the museum’s collections and career options
  • Visiting museums throughout New York City
  • Creating supplementary materials for N-YHS School Programs
  • Assisting with public programs, family programs, and other special events

(Thanks again to the N-YHS website for providing a thorough description)

The deadline for applying is April 29, 2011.  Applicants should have their parent/guardian’s permission, as well as valid working papers from the New York State Department of Labor (Information on working papers can be found on a NYSDOL link located at N-YHS’ site).  There is an application to fill out and two letters of recommendation.

(A word of advice: don’t ask your parents to recommend you.  Stick with teachers, coaches and administrators that know your academic skills and your work ethic.)

If you love history, love museums, heck even love New York City, you should be running, not walking, to take advantage of this opportunity.  For you juniors applying to college, this is the sort of thing that makes admissions officers drool (I should  know…I conduct admissions interviews for my alma mater.)  Please send this to all high school teachers and students eligible.

Here’s the link again. Best of luck to all applicants, and remember to tell them the Neighborhood sent you.

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Videos for the Classroom: The 1911 Triangle Fire from “New York” by Ric Burns

This week, there are a multitude of events, programs and special documentaries that commemorate the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911.  This snippet is from Ric Burnsdocumentary New York: A Documentary History.

Over the years, I’ve become more skeptical of Ric Burns’ work, as well as of his more esteemed brother Ken.  The still photos, maudlin music and monotone narration seem to manipulate my emotions a little TOO much.  Furthermore, they put my kids to sleep: their work is definitely geared more toward adults.

In spite of these drawbacks, however, Burns’ piece on the Triangle Fire does excel where similar styles would produce gags anywhere else.  In fact, I was introduced to the fire through this film, and it still remains a remarkable introduction.  The photo stills alone would shock any audience.

This piece serves as a good primer for your students in learning about the fire.  Make sure to show it before the PBS Gestapo force it off of YouTube.

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Numbers Don’t Lie? High-Stakes “Recruiting” at Democracy Prep Charter School

For those parents dreaming of a charter school as a “last resort” for their struggling child, that affection is probably unrequited.

In a world where low test scores mean school closure, struggling students is the last thing a charter needs—and their recruiting tactics back that claim.

Recently, a couple of my fifth grade students received a recruitment flyer and application from Democracy Prep Charter School, a school that boasts among the best test scores in the city. This is not new: fifth grade kids get bombarded with literature about the various middle-school programs available to them. So I just saw Democracy Prep as one of many suitors vying for their attention…

…that is, until I discovered an ulterior motive.

According to two stories, one in Fox 5 News and one in Gotham Schools, Democracy Prep got the green light from SUNY to take over the governance of Harlem Day Charter School, which is at the opposite polar end of its new overseers. Harlem Day was consistently among the lowest-achieving charters in the city, and reformers across the city championed Democracy Prep’s takeover.

In light of such movement, I took a look at Democracy Prep’s literature. The flyer was pretty non-descript, touting it’s perceived status as “the #1 middle school and the #1 charter school in the entire city of New York.” It had a nice mission statement, too: something about educating “citizen-scholars” (great bullshit term, thanks TFA!) to succeed as college graduates and “become active citizens in our community.” Nothing too inflammatory there.

Tucked away in the middle was the notice that Democracy Prep was “working to open a new elementary school in the fall…”, neglecting to mention that this new school did not come out of the blue, but rather from the frequently pissed-on ashes of Harlem Day. Still, if you fire the staff, dump the administrators and redesign all aspects of structure and curriculum from scratch, it’s essentially the same thing.

Then I took a poll, in each class, of the students who received such a letter. To a man, all the students—and ONLY the students—who received passing grades of Level 3 or 4 on their state English Language Arts (ELA) and Math exams in 4th grade were recruited by Democracy Prep.

Furthermore, the application was a slick exercise in covering its own ass from the ravages of an ACLU lawsuit. It stressed there was no admissions exam, and that “English language learners and students with special needs are especially encouraged to apply.” (their italics).

“Encouraged” meaning “…as long as your test scores don’t bring us all down and drag us into the painful light of DOE or SUNY scrutiny.”

If Democracy Prep was open to everyone, they had a funny way of demonstrating their openness.

It didn’t take long for me to figure it out—and not long after to explain to the kids my misgivings. In no uncertain terms, I shared my skepticism about Democracy Prep’s aims and their viability as an option:

(1) Democracy Prep is taking over a failing school. Chances are, propping up that failing school will take priority—regardless of what they say to you. Resources will be siphoned off their more “successful” schools at your expense.

(2) Democracy Prep has no admissions exam. If you are planning to go to a great middle school, what kind of school would not vet its applicants to assess their prior knowledge and skills?

And the most damning evidence of all:

(3) Even though they claimed to be open to everyone, Democracy Prep only sent letters to level 3s and 4s. This should tell you that this school probably cares more about their test scores than about how ready you are for high school and college.

This was only one charter school. Imagine the hijinks going on among schools across New York City. If ever there was proof that charters are not the “silver bullet” that will solve the ills of education, this is it.

It’s even more ludicrous considering Democracy Prep’s superintendent Seth Andrew and his remarks about their new acquisition:

“Harlem Day had incredibly low class size, tons of adults, one of the highest philanthropy per-pupil rates if not the highest, and a really nice building. So all of the traditional arguments that people make about what’s needed to fix schools: more money, smaller class sizes, more teachers, are just wrong. What you need is better teachers in a rigorous academic program.”

…that, and cherry-picking the best students from fifth grade to fill your rosters with ready-made “achievement.”

Lastly, this could not have been done without the connivance of someone within the bowels of Tweed. Middle schools in the city do get information about all fifth graders who are applying. However, how many of them have the top-scoring students already set apart on a silver platter—all the while expressing their desire to work with students at all levels.

If charter schools like this are your “Superman,” then they only work under a Lex Luthor-like web of deceit and slight-of-hand.

Would you entrust the education of your child in an institution that bases itself on such dishonesty? The education reform crowd seems to think so…which speaks volumes to their moral fiber.

 

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When Lunatics Control the Asylum: The Battle for Control of the Classroom

A meeting of doctors at the university of Pari...

Meeting of Doctors at the University of Paris. Image via Wikipedia

Imagine a world where the inmates dictated the routines of the guards and wardens of a prison.

Parishioners at church mandated certain sermons for the minister on Sunday.

Crowds of spectators made on-the-field decisions for sports teams.

(That last one was tried once in baseball. It may even work for the New York Mets this season, but that’s another story.)

Such is the situation in many school systems across America. In the march to vilify teachers as a hindrance to progress, “reformers” have “empowered” parents and students into making decisions largely left to teachers and administrators.

Discipline little Johnny for not doing his homework? Don’t hurt his feelings, or reports of “verbal abuse” will mark your resume for years to come. Little Cindy not working to her potential? Parents demand assessments and data that even they can’t understand—and ultimately lead to the same conclusion. And don’t you dare exclude Timmy from a field trip due to his reign of terror over little girls: such exclusion can (and often has) been interpreted as “corporal punishment.”

Reformers, administrators and naïve parents have worked to strip power from the very people that make school effective in the first place. Not only is this a gross sign of disrespect to the teaching profession, but runs counter to over 800 years of scholastic tradition in Europe and America.

Yes, that long ago.

In the development of scholastic education in Western Europe, two main systems emerged in the Middle Ages. One, the older of the two, was the Bologna system patterned after the University of Bologna, which is still the oldest continuously-running institution of higher learning in the world. In this system, a school was a corporation of the students. The students organized the government of the school, hired the faculty, and managed the faculty for the needs of the students. In essence, the students had all the power, and the faculty served at their pleasure.

This system made sense in Bologna, because it was primarily a professional school that granted strictly doctoral degrees in law and medicine. Thus, only the most dedicated and rigorous students would even apply in the first place. Yet there were flaws: students became difficult to control, drunken orgies were commonplace, and civil authorities could do little as students claimed the same rights and privileges as clerics.

(This is why you wear funny robes on graduation—it’s based on medieval monastic and academic dress.)

In the University of Paris, a new system of school governance emerged, not long after Bologna’s founding. Under the Paris system, the power was shifted from the students to the masters. The university would be a corporation of the faculty, which set down rules and governance, established the curriculum and guidelines for graduation as they saw fit, and maintained order and discipline among the student body.

(Sound familiar?)

Again, this made sense in Paris since the student body was comprised of many young students, often as young as 8 or 9. The curriculum was based more on the arts and theology, although law and medicine were also offered. Furthermore, it offered more than one degree, the baccalaureate (or bachelors) and the doctorate.

In 1167, King Henry II of England banned English students from studying at the University of Paris. It wasn’t their fault, just good old European politics, and they’d be invited back in the mid 13th century. The now-displaced Paris students established the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge (along with that important legacy of English smugness). 500 years later, the descendants of the Oxbridge alumni would establish other universities in the New World along the lines of the Paris system (with an even more insufferable brand of smugness).

Finally, the graduates of the bastions of learning in the United States helped to form America’s public education systems. That system of K-12 learning still utilizes the Paris model to an extent. While a high authority establishes the curriculum, and a separate administrative body handles general school governance, it is the corps of faculty that manages the day-to-day needs of the students in the best way possible.

The teachers, like the medieval masters of Paris and Oxford, were considered “experts” in their field. This allowed them a degree of flexibility when planning lessons, establishing routines and procedures, and managing the classroom. Parents listened to their counsel with the same respect due a doctor or even an ordained minister, and trusted that teachers knew what was best in the education of their children.

So what went wrong?

After numerous reports showing the ruinous state of our children’s education, one factor became paramount among “reformers.” The “expert” in education, the teacher, was almost solely to blame in America’s downward educational spiral. Thus, it was important to give parents more control over their child’s education. Home schooling, charters, vouchers—all were designed to make parents (and in a subversive way, students) the principal actors in their learning.

Along with the “parents first” approach came a noticeable uptick in litigation over perceived abuses in the system. Parent-teacher conferences and visit to the principal’s office now require phalanxes of attorneys ready to serve on any perceived slight by the child. What’s worse, administrations on the district level set up protocols and controls that make teachers virtual whipping boys in even the most frivolous complaints.

Both of these developments due, unfortunately, have some basis in fact. Teacher training and education has long been an Achilles ’ heel in developing quality education. It’s hard to be an “expert” when there’s little scrutiny or rigor in selecting and training great educators.

Furthermore, one cannot overstate the very real abuses that take place in many classrooms. Verbal, emotional, and often physical abuse did, and still does, occur. No good teacher should engage in such negative behavior with students. Excesses in the system need to be controlled, even by legal means.

However, education is not served by handcuffing teachers with burdensome regulations, litigious parents and administrations quick to blame a scapegoat instead of standing firm with the faculty for the good of quality education.

Parents should be fully involved in a child’s education. Yet rather than sit parents and teachers together to solve common problems, reformers have set parents against teachers like rabid dogs in a fighting pit. Thanks to half-truths and hypercharged rhetoric, parents see the teacher as the enemy, with no room for compromise.

If a parent thinks they can teach their kid better than a teacher, by all means, go ahead.

If a parent thinks a charter school or a private school can educate better than a regular public school, best of luck to you.

But be warned: parents, if you choose to send your child into a school, any school, be prepared to surrender some of your power and discretion for the best interests of a child’s education.

In all schools—public, private or charter—parents need to trust that teachers are doing the right thing. All the teacher programs in the world, TFA, Teaching Fellows and the rest, are efforts in futility unless teachers are again regarded as “experts” who demand respect and discretion (to an extent, of course). Second-guessing teachers rarely helps a child, but rather gives more anxiety to an already tense situation.

Maybe education in this country never fully resembled the Paris model to which the lads of Harvard and Yale aspired. Yet it was a model that set the standard for Europe and America for almost a millennium.

Who are we to doubt its effectiveness now…

…unless, of course, you’re one of the inmates running the asylum. (Mayor Bloomberg, I’m looking in your direction.)

 

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The Authentic History Center: A Website Review

A Rotten Place to Visit and You Wouldn't Want ...

Image by John McNab via Flickr

The Internet is rarely the best place for “one stop shopping.”

As in the non-digital world, one often has to go to multiple sites to get the best prices.  For some reason, no one site has the best of everything, which really plays havoc on your shipping and handling costs.

The same is true for the history educator that needs visual artifacts in a hurry.  For frequent visitors to the Neighborhood, there is a list of my “Non-Blog Faves” to the right, websites that cater to the needs of today’s history-minded folks.  Note the length: although many of these sites claim to be “one-stop shops”, there’s always that picture of a basket or a weird Mayan dish that can only be found on certain sites that bug out your school district’s firewall (believe me, I know).

Recently, I needed to find such a place for the entire collection of photographs in Jacob Riis‘ groundbreaking 1890 work How the Other Half Lives.  I was creating a slideshow with the photos and its a royal pain in the ass finding them all in one site.  Usually, it would take multiple image searches and sifts through multiple prints of dubious quality.

Just before I bitch-slapped my laptop in frustration, I cam across a curious little site.  The Authentic History Center had what I needed, and then some.  Not only did it have all the photos, but all the TEXT as well, including the drawn illustrations.

What balls on these guys, I thought.  This had to be investigated further.

Any site that has a single creator or author should be used with a cautious eye.  Too many kooks, nutjobs and dangerously uneducated wingnuts are out there to spread misleading and false information disguised as fact, simply because it sounds kind of official: read www.martinlutherking.org if you don’t believe me.  So I was immediated suspicious of any guy that creates a site claiming “authentic” history.

Well, Thank God.  The creater of the Authentic History Center project is a crazy history-obsessed wierdo like yours truly–and possibly any one of my regular readers.

(…and believe me, the world needs more wierdos like us)

Michael Barnes is a high school history teacher in west Michigan who created this site to provide a catalog of popular culture throughout American history.  His artifacts cover a wide range, from posters (his World War I posters are most impressive) to magazine covers, cartoons to audio and video recordings.

What’s better, the artifacts are meant to be studied with as little editorializing as possible.  A student doesn’t have to worry about some grad-student pea brain or a bedsheet-wearing cross burner slipping bad info into the term paper.   Even if you need analysis, Barnes provides incredibly even-handed views.  Along the way are interpretive essays that give some insight into the historical events, people and crises covered in the artifacts.

His honesty shines through in his intro to How the Other Half Lives, for example:

This pioneering work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis focused on the plight of the poor in the Lower East Side, and greatly influenced future “muckraking” journalism. Riis mostly attributed the plight of the poor to environmental conditions, but he also divided the poor into two categories: deserving of assistance (mostly women and children) and undeserving (mostly the unemployed and intractably criminal). He wrote with prejudice about Jews, Italians, and Irish, and he stopped short of calling for government intervention. Still, the catalyst of his work was a genuine sympathy for his subjects, and his work shocked many New Yorkers.

Concise, accurate, good use of the source material and generally a great summary of the work (although he did neglect to mention that many of Riis’ photographs were staged).

The AHC is a work in progress, so don’t expect everything you need to be there right away.  The site is constantly growing with new artifacts and new materials.  Until then, take some time to explore what Michael Barnes has and see how it can be used in your classrooms.

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This Day in History 3/14: Whitney Patents the Cotton Gin

March 14, 1794 patent for Eli Whitney's cotton gin, courtesy of the National Archives

Eli Whitney made slavery profitable.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it.

In one of the great “my bads” in American history, Connecticut inventor Eli Whitney received Patent X72 for his cotton “engine”, or “gin.”  This device mechanized the separation of cotton seeds from their fibers, which had been an arduous, labor-intensive process.  Once considered a luxury item, short-staple cotton became a valuable commodity almost overnight, and it revived a dying institution in the South–slavery.

Yet if his patents were respected–which was impossible at the time–Whitney probably didn’t intend for it to be that way.

The cotton gins were not originally meant to be sold to plantations to use onsite.  Whitney’s original business model (albeit flawed) provided that cotton growers send their bales to his gins in Connecticut, where his machines would process the cotton for 40% of the ginned product as a fee.  Most Southern growers resented this arrangement, which smelled of shady proprietorships of grist and saw mills.  Furthermore, since patent law was difficult to enforce at the time, it was easily copied by tinkerers and craftsmen throughout the South.  In fact, Whitney ate up all his profits fighting patent infringements in court, and his business went bankrupt in 1797.

If the system were left as Whitney designed, who knows what would have happened to slave populations in southern plantations.  By the end of the 18th century slavery was dying in the North, and was increasingly unprofitable in the South–almost to the point of planters selling all their enslaved Africans and using hired hands instead.

Yet the gin, especially the patent-infringed gins that spread on every plantation, made machine-processed short-staple cotton available onsite for massive profits.  Cotton became such a commercial boon it tangentially boosted the fortunes of textile mills in New England, Great Britain and continental Europe: Now these “free” places were also tied to the slave economy.  Easier processed cotton meant more production, and more production required more hands picking up to 300 or even 400 pounds a day as a quota.

The whole vicious cycle spiraled through the early 19th century until the matter was settled with four years of bloodshed.

Eli Whitney is not exactly a beloved figure in most Black households.  Most likely, he’s burned in effigy with Roger Taney, “Bull” Connor and George Wallace.  One cannot know a man’s true intentions, but I don’t think he wanted to expand slavery by building a machine.  Instead, he wanted to get rich from a labor-saving device that would revolutionize an industry.

Too bad he was such a crappy businessman.

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