All posts filed under: History

The Father of Capitalism and the Abolition of Slavery

It has become a common trope that slavery and the slave trade is responsible for the industrial revolution, if not our entire modern prosperity. Slavery is often called capitalism’s “dark side.” A recent column in the Guardian claimed the slave trade “heralded the age of capitalism” and Guardian columnist George Monbiot said on Twitter: “The more we discover about our own history, the less the ‘trade’ on which Britain built its wealth looks like exchange, and the more it looks like looting. It meant extracting stolen resources and the products of slavery, debt bondage and land theft from other nations.” The same line has been taken by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who tweeted: “It’s a sad truth that much of our wealth was derived from the slave trade.” But what did the “father of modern economics,” Adam Smith, actually think about slavery? And is it responsible for our modern prosperity? Adam Smith argued not only that slavery was morally reprehensible, but that it causes economic self-harm. He provided economic and moral ammunition for the abolitionist …

Goodbye to Hong Kong?

I shall always regret not visiting Hong Kong while it was still under British control or while the city remained the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” For reasons I will get into below, I feel a special affection for the city, and will mourn the loss of its political autonomy and, potentially, the end of its economic prosperity. For classical liberals, Hong Kong had been a beacon of hope for half a century. Peter the Great is said to have built St Petersburg to be “Russia’s window to the west.” Hong Kong was supposed to be liberalism’s window to the future. The city’s fabled wealth was built on four pillars of classical liberalism: limited government, rule of law, free trade, and fiscal probity. And, it worked! We hoped that the rest of the world would follow a similar path. When Britain obtained the territory following the First Opium War (1839 – 1842), British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston denounced the acquisition as a “barren rock with nary a house upon it” …

Captain Cook and the Colonial Paradox

On April 29th, 1770, a longboat from the Royal Navy bark Endeavour grounded on Silver Beach at Botany Bay in what is now Sydney’s southern suburbs. Isaac Smith, a young midshipman, leapt out and became the first European to set foot on Australia’s east coast. Four men followed—Swedish scientist Daniel Solander, English Botanist Joseph Banks, Tahitian navigator Tupaia, and the commander of the expedition, Lieutenant James Cook. They had rowed towards an encampment of the Gweagal Aboriginal people in the hope of speaking to the inhabitants. However, all the people had fled, save for two men, who seemed determined to oppose Cook’s landing. Cook tried to speak to them, but to no avail—neither he nor Tupaia could understand the language they called back in. Cook tried throwing some nails and beads onto the shore as a peace offering, but they didn’t understand the gesture, and according to Cook, made as if they were going to attack. He fired a musket between them, and one responded by throwing a rock. He fired a second shot, wounding …

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization—A Review

A review of Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Samuel Gregg, Gateway Editions (June 2019) 256 pages. The role of Christianity in Western history presents an interesting puzzle. Those who argue that Christianity has nothing to do with the success of the modern West need to explain why the scientific method, constitutional government, market economics, and the modern concept of human rights arose in Christian Europe rather than somewhere else. On the other hand, those who argue that Christianity is critical or integral to the success of the modern West need to explain why these developments did not occur until 12 centuries after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. For most of its history, Christianity didn’t seem to be making much of a contribution to freedom, peace, and prosperity. One interpretation which has gained currency is the “Athens and Jerusalem” argument, according to which, Western civilisation is based in a unique combination of Greek reason and Judeo-Christian faith. This argument was recently rehearsed, for example, by Ben Shapiro in …

Lessons in Death and Life from the Diaries of Samuel Pepys

One of the passions of my reading life—which might seem strange for a youngish man—has been devouring and re-devouring the complete diaries of Samuel Pepys, which, when stacked on top of one another, rise above my knee. If you are late to the Pepys game, it suffices to say that our man, who was born in early 1633 and went on to be England’s chief administrator of the navy and a member of parliament, was king of the diarists. Day in, day out, he kept a record of his life from January 1st, 1660, and continued to do so for about 10 years. He likely wrote for posterity, but he also seemed to write with a maxim in mind: If it was true, he would say it. And so, we have him complaining with regularity about his wife, the cat he contemplates drowning, and his weakness—for Pepys was a born peeper—for young, comely actresses. Strange as my passion for Pepys may be in the age of the meme and an apparent war on literate expression, …

Seven Reflections on Isolation

From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than it was possible I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world; and with this thought I was going to give thanks to God for bringing me to this place. ~Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe As I read Defoe’s tale as a child, I imagined being stranded on a remote island. This, I believed, would be an unrivaled adventure. It was exciting to think of overcoming the elements, of sheltering, of creating a lean-to that I would improve daily, and of devising ways to harness the land and sea in the search for nutrition and sustenance. The thought of loneliness never entered my mind. I was too young to understand the native man Friday. I certainly didn’t flinch at Crusoe’s insistence on being called Master, for what did I know of the colonial world or of white versus the Other. But a part of me wanted …

Social Distancing During the Black Death

One of the comforts of studying history is that, no matter how bad things get, you can always find a moment in the past when things were much, much worse. Some commentators on our current crisis have been throwing around comparisons to earlier pandemics, and the Black Death of 1347 — 50 inevitably gets mentioned. Please. The Black Death wiped out half the population of Europe in the space of four years. In some places the mortality was far swifter and deadlier than that. The novelist Giovanni Boccaccio, who gave us the most vivid picture of the Black Death in literature, estimated that 100,000 people died in Florence in the four months between March and July 1348. The population of the city in 1338, according to one contemporary chronicler, stood at 120,000. Boccaccio at the time was a city tax official and saw the whole thing at ground level. Every morning bodies of the dead—husbands, wives, children, servants—were pushed out into the street where they were piled on stretchers, later on carts. They were carried …

Sorry, New York Times, But America Began in 1776

The United States of America began in 1776, not 1619. That one sentence is the thesis statement of “1776”—a non-partisan black-led response to the New York Times’s “1619 Project” initiative, which launched last week at D.C.’s National Press Club. I am pleased and proud to be a part of 1776, along with founder Bob Woodson, Glenn Loury, Coleman Hughes, Jason Hill, Carol Swain, John Wood, Taleeb Starkes, Robert Cherry, and many others. From my perspective as a member, 1776 has three core goals: (1) rebutting some outright historical inaccuracies in the 1619 Project; (2) discussing tragedies like slavery and segregation honestly while clarifying that these were not the most important historical foundations of the United States; and (3) presenting an alternative inspirational view of the lessons of our nation’s history to Americans of all races. The first of these points is perhaps the least important, but still a weighty task. Many of the claims made by the 1619 Project, which attempts to link everything from non-socialized medicine to American sugar consumption to historical slavery, are …

Putin at the World Holocaust Forum

Earlier this month, some 10 days after the World Holocaust Forum held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem to commemorate the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, the museum issued an unusual apology for a film presentation that contained “inaccuracies” and “created an unbalanced impression”—by, among other things, memory-holing the 1939 division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the Soviet occupation of the Baltics in 1940. The apology letter, signed by Professor Dan Michman of Yad Vashem’s International Institute of Holocaust Research and published in Haaretz, referred to this assault on historical facts as a “regrettable mishap.” But the presentation was actually part of a much bigger problem: the degree to which the forum was turned into a showcase for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his revisionist history, and his friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The January 23rd forum—funded mostly by Russian Jewish billionaire, European Jewish Congress president, and Putin ally Moshe Kantor, and organized in partnership with the Israeli government—more or less channeled the Kremlin propaganda narrative of World …

Holbrooke and the 68ers

Our Man—Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer, Knopf, 608 pages, (May 2019) Power and the Idealists by Paul Berman, W. W. Norton and Company, 348 pages, (April 2007 Reissue) I. George Packer is a shrewd chronicler of American decay. In his 2013 book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, Packer reveals a battered, post-recession United States—from gutted factories in Youngstown, Ohio to abandoned housing developments in Tampa, Florida. The Unwinding isn’t a polemic—it’s written in the style of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, so it includes long profiles of the main “characters” alongside shorter essays about major American figures (from Colin Powell to Oprah) and page-long, staccato blasts of ads, lyrics, movie quotes, and headlines over the years. While some of the portraits in The Unwinding are evocative accounts of American resilience and ingenuity, if you pick up the book today, it’s like reading the prequel to Trumpism. And it hasn’t escaped Packer’s notice that his most recent book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End …