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Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Freeby Charles P Pierce
The Prince of Cranks
Ralph Ketchum sits on the porch of his little house tucked away on a dirt lane that runs down toward a lake, pouring soda for his guest and listening to the thrum of the rain on his roof. He has been talking to a visitor about the great subject of his academic life-James Madison, the diminutive hypochondriac from Virginia who, in 1787, overthrew the U.S. government and did so simply by being smarter than everyone else. American popular history seems at this point to have de­volved into a Founding Father of the Month Club, with several huge books on Alexander Hamilton selling briskly, an almost limitless fascination with Thomas Jefferson, a steady stream of folks spelunking through George Washingtons psyche, and an HBO project starring the Academy Award winner Paul Giamatti as that impossible old blatherskite John Adams. But Madison, it seems, has been abandoned by Þlmmakers and by the writers of lushly footnoted doorstops. He also was a mediocre president; this never translates well to the screen, where all presidents are great men.
There are two things that make Jefferson superior to Madison in the historical memory,says Ketchum. One was Jeffer­sons magnetism in small groups and the other was his gift for the eloquent phrase. Madison has always been a trailer in that way because, well, he writes perfectly well and, occasionally, manages some eloquence. Occasionally.
Madison was not a social lion. In large gatherings, Ketchum writes, people often found him stiff, reserved, cold, even aloof and supercilious. He relaxed only in small settings, among peo­ple he knew, and while discussing issues of which he felt he had command. He therefore seldom made a good first impression,writes Ketchum, seldom overawed a legislative body at his first appearance, and seldom figured in the spicy or dramatic events of which gossip and headlines are made.Madison thought, is what he did, and thinking makes very bad television.
However, for all his shyness and lack of inherent charisma, Madison did manage to woo and win Dolley Payne Todd, the most eligible widow of the time. Ketchum points out that the Virginian came calling having decked himself out in a new beaver hat. (The introductions were made by none other than Aaron Burr, who certainly did get around. If youre keeping score, this means that Burr is responsible for the marriage of one of the authors of the Federalist and the death of another, having subsequently introduced Alexander Hamilton to a bullet in Weehawken.) He did win Dolley.Ketchum smiles. He had to have something going for him there.
Ketchums fascination with Madison began in graduate school at the University of Chicago. His mentor, the historian Stuart Brown, encouraged Ketchum to do his doctoral disserta­tion on Madisons political philosophy. Ketchum finished the dissertation in 1956. He also spent four years working as an edi­tor of Madisons papers at the University of Chicago. He began work on his massive biography of Madison in the mid-1960s and didnt finish the book until 1971.
Partly, Ketchum says, the hook was through my mentor, Stuart Brown, and I think I absorbed his enthusiasm, which was for the founding period in general. He said that he thought Madison had been neglected-my wife calls him ‘the Charlie Brown of the Founding Fathers-and that he was more impor­tant, so that set me to work on him.
Madison was always the guy under the hood, tinkering with the invention hed helped to devise in Philadelphia, when he im­proved the Articles of Confederation out of existence. You can see that in the correspondence between them-Jefferson and Madison. Madison was always toning Jefferson down a little bit. Henry Clay said that Jefferson had more genius but that Madison had better judgment-that Jefferson was more bril­liant, but that Madison was more profound.
We are at a dead level time in the dreary summer of 2007. A war of dubious origins and uncertain goals is dragging on de­spite the fact that a full 70 percent of the people in the country dont want it to do so. Politics is beginning to gather itself into an election season in which the price of a candidates haircuts will be as important for a time as his position on the war. The country is entertained, but not engaged. It is drowning in infor­mation and thirsty for knowledge. There have been seven years of empty debate, of deliberate inexpertise, of abandoned rigor, of lazy, pulpy tolerance for risible ideas simply because they sell, or because enough people believe in them devoutly enough to raise a clamor that can be heard over the deadening drone that suffuses everything else. The drift is as palpable as the rain in the trees, and it comes from willful and deliberate neglect. Mad­ison believed in self-government in all things, not merely in our politics. He did not believe in drift. A popular government,he famously wrote, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a tragedy or a Farce, or perhaps both.The great flaw, of course, is that, even given the means to acquire information, the people of the country may decline. Drift is willed into being.
I think we are nowhere near the citizens he would want us to be,Ketchum muses. It was kind of an idealism in Madi­sons view that we can do better than that, but it depends, fun­damentally, on improving the quality of the parts, the citizens. I think he would be very discouraged.
Madison is an imperfect guide, as all of them are, even the ones that have television movies made about them. When they launched the country, they really had no idea where all they were doing might lead. They launched more than a political ex­periment. They set free a spirit by which every idea, no matter how howlingly mad, can be heard. There is more than a little evidence that they meant this spirit to go far beyond the political institutions of a free government. They saw Americans-white male ones, anyway-as a different kind of people from any that had come before. They believed that they had created a space of the mind as vast as the new continent onto which fate, ambition, greed, and religious persecution had dropped them, and just as wild. They managed to set freedom itself free.
Madison himself dropped a hint in Federalist 14. Is it not the glory of the people of America, he wrote, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for an­tiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
Granted, he was at the time arguing against the notion that a republic could not flourish if it got too big or its population got too large. But you also can see in his question the seedbed of a culture that inevitably would lead, not only to Abraham Lin­coln and Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, but to Wil­liam Faulkner, Jackson Pollock, and Little Richard. A culture that moves and evolves and absorbs the new. Experiment, the founders told us. Theres plenty of room here for new ideas, and no idea is too crazy to be tested.
V V V
EARLY on the sparkling morning, the golf carts, newly washed, sit gleaming in a row along one side of the parking lot. Theres a faint and distant click, the sound of the days Þrst drives being launched down the shining fairways. Inside the clubhouse of the small public course along Route 61 just outside Minneapolis, two elderly gentlemen are just sitting down for breakfast when someone comes in and asks them if they know how to get to the old lost town. They think for a minute; then one of them rises and points out the window, past the dripping golf carts and off down Route 61, where the winding road runs toward the Mis­sissippi River.
As I recall,he says, when my grandfather took me out there when I was a kid, it was down that way, right on the river­bank. Its all grown over now, though, I think.
A dream lies buried in the lush growth that has sprung up on the banks of the great river. In 1856, a dreamer built a city here; the city failed, but the crank went on. He went into politics. He went off to Congress. He came home and he farmed on what was left of the land from his city, and he read. Oh, Lord, how he read. He read so much that he rediscovered Atlantis. He read so much that he discovered how the earth was formed of the cosmic deposits left by comets. He read so much that he found a code in Shakespeares plays proving that their author was Fran­cis Bacon. His endless, grinding research was thorough, careful, and absolutely, utterly wrong. It is so oftentimes in this world,he lamented to his diary in 1881, Òthat it is not the philosophy that is at fault, but the facts.They called him the Prince of Cranks.
Ignatius Donnelly was born in Philadelphia, the son of a doc­tor and a pawnbroker. He received a proper formal education, and after high school found a job as a clerk in the law office of Benjamin Brewster. But the law bored him. He felt a stirring in his literary soul; in 1850, his poem The Mourners Vision was published. Its a heartfelt, if substantially overcooked, ap­peal to his countrymen to resist the repressive measures through which the European governments had squashed the revolutions of 1848. Donnelly wrote:
O! Austria the vile and France the weak,
My curse be on ye like an autumn storm.
Dragging out teardrops on the pale years cheek,
adding fresh baseness to the twisting worm;
My curse be on ye like a mothers, warm,
Red reeking with my dripping sin and shame;
May all my grief back turned to ye, deform
Your very broken image, and a name,
Be left ye which Hells friends shall hiss and curse the
As one historian gently put it, the poem was not critically ac­claimed.
Donnelly also involved himself in Philadelphias various fra­ternal and professional organizations, as well as in its tumul­tuous Democratic politics. By 1855, hed developed a sufficient reputation for oratory that he was chosen to deliver the Fourth of July address at the local county Democratic convention in Independence Square.
However, for the first-but far from the last-time in his life, Donnellys political gyroscope now came peculiarly unstuck. Within a year of giving the address, hed pulled out of a race for the Pennsylvania state legislature and endorsed his putative opponent, a Whig. The next year, he again declared himself a Democrat and threw himself into James Buchanans presidential campaign. Buchanan got elected; not long afterward, Donnelly announced that he was a Republican.
By now, too, he was chafing at the limits of being merely one Philadelphia lawyer in a city of thousands of them, many of whom had the built-in advantages of money and social con­nections that gave them a permanent head start. Hed married Katherine McCaffrey, a young school principal with a beautiful singing voice, in 1855. He wanted to be rich and famous. Phila­delphia seemed both too crowded a place to make a fortune and too large a place in which to become famous. And, besides, his mother and his wife hated each other. (They would not speak for almost fifteen years.) He was ready to move. Not long af­ter he was married, Donnelly met a man named John Nininger, and Nininger had a proposition for him.
The country was in the middle of an immigration boom as the revolutions of the 1840s threw thousands of farmers from central Europe off their land and out of their countries. Nin­inger, whod made himself rich through real estate speculation in Minnesota, had bought for a little less than $25,000 a parcel of land along a bend in the Mississippi twenty-five miles south of St. Paul. Nininger proposed that he himself handle the sale of the land, while Donnelly, with his natural eloquence and bound­less enthusiasm, would pitch the project, now called Nininger, to newly arrived immigrants. Ignatius and Katherine Donnelly moved to St. Paul, and he embarked on a sales campaign that was notably vigorous even by the go-go standards of the time.
There will be in the Fall of 1856 established in Philadelphia, New York, and other Eastern cities, a great Emigration Associa­tion,Donnelly wrote in the original Statement of Organization for the city of Nininger. Nininger City will be the depot in which all the interests of this huge operation will centre. Donnelly promised that Nininger would feature both a ferry dock and a railroad link, making the town the transportation hub be­tween St. Paul and the rest of the Midwest. To Nininger, farm­ers from the distant St. Croix valley would send their produce for shipment to the wider world. Nininger would be a planned, scientiÞc community, a thoroughly modern frontier city.
Western towns have heretofore grown by chance, Donnelly wrote, Nininger will be the furst to prove what combination and concentrated effort can do to assist nature.
Eventually, some five hundred people took him up on it. In time, Nininger built a library and a music hall. Donnelly told Katherine that he wasnt sure what to do with himself now that hed made his fortune. In May 1856, he waxed lyrical to the Minnesota Historical Society about the inexorable march of civilization and the role he had played in it. At which point, ap­proximately, the roof fell in.
It was the Panic of 1857 that did it. The Minnesota land boom of the 1850s-of which Nininger was a perfect example- had been financed by money borrowed from eastern speculators by the local banks. When these loans were called in, the banks responded by calling in their own paper, and an avalanche of foreclosures buried towns like Nininger. The panic also scared the federal government out of the land-grant business, which was crucial to the development of the smaller railroads. When the Nininger and St. Peter Railroad Line failed, it not only ended Niningers chance to be a rail hub but made plans for the Missis­sippi ferry untenable as well.
Donnelly did all he could to keep the dream alive. He offered to carry his neighbors mortgages for them. He tried, vainly, to have Nininger declared the seat of Dakota County. The town became something of a joke; one columnist in St. Paul claimed he would sell his stock in the railroad for $4 even though it had cost him $5 to buy it. Gradually, the people of Nininger moved on. Ignatius Donnelly, however, stayed. In his big house, brood­ing over the collapse of his dream, he planned his next move. He read widely and with an astonishing catholicity of interest. He decided to go back into politics.
Donnelly found himself drawn to the nascent Republicans, in no small part because of the fervor with which the new party opposed slavery. In 1857 and again in 1858, he lost elections to the territorial senate. In 1858, Minnesota was admitted to the Union, and Donnellys career took off.
The election of 1859 was the first manifest demonstration of the burgeoning power of the Republican party. Donnelly cam­paigned tirelessly across the state; his gift for drama served him well. He allied himself with the powerful Minnesota Republican Alexander Ramsey, and in 1859, when Ramsey was swept into the governorship, Donnelly was elected lieutenant governor on the same ticket. He was twenty- eight years old. Contemporary photos show a meaty young man in the usual high collar, with a restless ambition in his eyes. He found the post of lieutenant gov­ernor constraining and, if Ramsey thought that he was escaping his rambunctious subordinate when the Minnesota legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1862, he was sadly mistaken. That same year, Ignatius Donnelly was elected to the House of Representatives from the Second District of Minnesota.
For the next four years, Donnellys career was remarkably like that of any other Republican congressman of the time, if a bit louder and more garish. After the war, he threw himself into the issues surrounding Reconstruction, and he worked on land- use matters that were important back home. He also haunted the Library of Congress, reading as omnivorously as ever. He began to ponder questions far from the politics of the day, although he took care to get himself reelected twice. Not long after his reelection in 1866, however, his feud with Ramsey exploded and left his political career in ruins, in no small part because Ignatius Donnelly could never bring himself to shut up.
It was no secret in Minnesota that Donnelly had his eye on Ramseys seat in the Senate. It certainly was no secret to Ram­sey, who had long ago become fed up with Donnelly, and who was now enraged at his rivals scheming. One of Ramseys most inßuential supporters was a lumber tycoon from Minneapolis, William Washburne, whose brother, Elihu, was a powerful Re­publican congressman from Illinois. In March 1868, Donnelly wrote a letter home to one of his constituents in which he railed against Elihu Washburnes opposition to a piece of land-grant legislation.
On April 18, Congressman Washburne replied, blistering Donnelly in the St. Paul Press. He called Donnelly an ofÞ ce­beggar, charged him with official corruption, and hinted omi­nously that he was hiding a criminal past. In response, Donnelly went completely up the wall.
By modern standards, under which campaign advisers can lose their jobs for calling the other candidate a monster,the speech is inconceivable. Donnelly spoke for an hour. He ripped into all Washburnes. He made merciless fun of Elihu Wash­burnes reputation for fiscal prudence and personal rectitude. Three times, the Speaker of the House tried to gavel him to order. Donnelly went sailing on, finally reaching a crescendo of personal derision that made the torid sentiments of The Mourners Vision read like e. e. cummings.
If there be in our midst one low, sordid, vulgar soul . . . one tongue leprous with slander; one mouth which is like unto a den of foul beasts giving forth deadly odors; if there be one char­acter which, while blotched and spotted all over, yet raves and rants and blackguards like a prostitute; if there be one bold, bad, empty, bellowing demagogue, it is the gentleman from Illinois.
The resulting campaign was a brawl. The Republican primary was shot through with violence. Ultimately, Ramsey County found itself with two conventions in the same hall, which re­sulted in complete chaos and one terrifying moment when the floor seemed ready to give way. Donnelly lost the statewide nomination. He ran anyway and lost. By the winter of 1880, after losing another congressional race, Donnelly lamented to his diary, My life had been a failure and a mistake.
Donnelly went home to the big house in what had been the city of Nininger. Although he would drift from one political cause to another for the rest of his life, he spent most of his time thinking and writing, and, improbably, making himself one of the most famous men in America.
During his time in Washington, on those long afternoons when he played hooky from his job in the Congress, Donnelly had buried himself in the booming scientiÞc literature of the age, and in the pseudoscientiÞc literature-both Þctional and pur­portedly not-that was its inevitable by-product. Donnelly had fallen in love with the work of Jules Verne, especially Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which had been published to great acclaim in 1870, and which features a visit by Captain Nemo and his submarine to the ruins of a lost city beneath the waves. Donnelly gathered an enormous amount of material and set himself to work to dig a legend out of the dim prehistory. From the library in his Minnesota farmhouse, with its potbel­lied stove and its rumpled daybed in one corner, Ignatius Don­nelly set out to Þ nd Atlantis.
It was best known from its brief appearances in Timaeus and Critias, two of Platos dialogues. These were Donnellys jumping-off point. He proposed that the ancient island had ex­isted, just east of the Azores, at the point where the Mediter­ranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. He argued that Atlantis was the source of all civilization, and that its culture had estab­lished itself everywhere from Mexico to the Caspian Sea. The gods and goddesses of all the ancient myths, from Zeus to Odin to Vishnu and back again, were merely the Atlantean kings and queens. He credited Atlantean culture for everything from Bronze Age weaponry in Europe, to the Mayan calendar, to the Phoenician alphabet. He wrote that the island had vanished in a sudden cataclysm, but that some Atlanteans escaped, spreading out across the world and telling the story of their fate.
The book is a carefully crafted political polemic. That Don­nelly reached his conclusions before gathering his data is obvious from the start, but his brief is closely argued from an impossibly dense synthesis of dozens of sources. Using his research into un­derwater topography, and using secondary sources to extrapo­late Plato nearly to the moon, Donnelly argues Þrst that there is geologic evidence for an islands having once been exactly where Donnelly thought Atlantis had been. He then dips into comparative mythology, arguing that ßood narratives common to many religions are derived from a dim memory of the events described by Plato. At one point, Donnelly attributes the bibli­cal story of the Tower of Babel to the Atlanteans attempt to keep their heads literally above water.
He uses his research into anthropology and history to posit a common source for Egyptian and pre-Columbian American culture. All the converging lines of civilization, Donnelly writes, lead to Atlantis. . . . The Roman civilization was sim­ply a development and perfection of the civilization possessed by all the European populations; it was drawn from the common fountain of Atlantis.Donnelly connects the development of all civilization to Atlantis, citing the fact that Hindus and Aztecs developed similar board games, and that all civilizations even­tually discover how to brew fermented spirits. The fourth part of the book is an exercise in comparative mythology; Donnelly concludes by describing how the Atlantean remnant fanned out across the world after their island sank. He rests much of his case on recent archaeological works and arguing, essentially, that, if we can Þnd Pompeii, we can Þnd Atlantis. ÒWe are on the threshold,he exclaims.
Who shall say that one hundred years from now the great museums of the world may not be adorned with gems, statues, arms and implements from Atlan­tis, while the libraries of the world shall contain translations of its inscriptions, throwing new light upon all the past history of the human race, and all the great problems which now perplex the thinkers of our day!
Harper & Brothers in New York published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in February 1882. It became an overnight sensation. The book went through twenty-three editions in eight years, and a revised edition was published as late as 1949. Donnelly corresponded on the topic with William Gladstone, then the prime minister of England. Charles Darwin also wrote, but only to tell Donnelly that he was somewhat skeptical, prob­ably because Donnellys theory of an Atlantean source for civi­lization made a hash of Darwins theories. On the other hand, Donnelly also heard from a distant cousin who was a bishop in Ireland. He deplored Donnellys blithe dismissal of the biblical accounts of practically everything.
The popular press ate Donnelly up. (One reviewer even cited Atlantis as reinforcing the biblical account of Genesis, which showed at least that Donnellys work meant different things to different people.) The St. Paul Dispatch, the paper that had stood for him in his battles against Ramsey and the Washburnes, called Atlantis Òone of the notable books of the decade, nay, of the century.Donnelly embarked on a career as a lecturer that would continue until his death. He got rave reviews.
A stupendous speculator in cosmogony,gushed the Lon­don Daily News. One of the most remarkable men of this age,agreed the St. Louis Critic. And, doubling down on both of them, the New York Star called Donnelly Òthe most unique figure in our national history.
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