Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Text-Mining at an Institution with Lesser Financial Resources, Revisited

I am presently moving forward with a research program in text-mining at Northern Illinois University Libraries, but have encountered an unexpected obstacle.

About a year ago I ordered a copy of ProQuest's American Periodicals data set for local use. Our library subscribes to ProQuest's hosted version of this product, but the product's design/technical infrastructure does not allow text-mining activities and our license for its use prohibits the downloading of anything but the most insignificant amount of materials. When I contacted ProQuest about the matter, they informed me that I would need to pay an additional $1000 for the preparation and delivery of the entire data set (approximately five terabytes) to me. I could then use the data on my local infrastructure.

For the past two years I have worked with members of my university's Computer Science Department, principally providing graduate students in Data Science with access to relatively large humanities text data sets that I have created myself and questions that they may use to inform text mining activities. Prior to my purchase of the American Periodicals data set, I secured an agreement with that department whereby they would host the materials on their high-capacity computing cluster and make them available for ongoing Data Science research.  I would take delivery of the materials from ProQuest, then transfer them to the cluster for processing and future use.

I still do not have the data. The first six months or so of delays were the result of my Library's mistake in attempting to charge the expense for the materials to the wrong account. Once we resolved that, I struggled to get ProQuest to review my university legal department's proposed (unremarkable) revisions to the contract for several months. Upon resolving that, I was able to forward payment to ProQuest in August, and looked forward to the delivery of the materials.

At this point I learned that ProQuest expected to deliver the full data set to a server of my choosing via the Internet. Since my library does not have 5 TB of extra capacity readily available, I asked for the data to be delivered on a hard drive or hard drives. ProQuest agreed.

A month passed, and I heard nothing from ProQuest. My contact with the company asked me to bear with him as he had staff members absent from the office while on holiday. Another month passed, and after another inquiry I learned that the company reserves the right to deliver the materials on hard drive any time within a period of six months after payment. I see no mention of this reservation in my contract with the company.

It seems likely to me that ProQuest is accustomed to working with institutions large enough, and possessed of enough material resources, to take delivery of such a large data set in this manner quite easily. My institution does not fit that description. After a period of two years without any state support, we recently began to receive payments from the State of Illinois again. Needless to say, our digital infrastructure is far from robust.

If I had known that the delivery of this data by hard drive would prove to be such a difficult matter, I would have made the necessary arrangements with my university's Department of Computer Science to have the data delivered directly to their cluster via the Internet. As this is an inter-divisional matter within the university, it will take some time. I initially intended to take delivery of the American Periodicals materials as quickly as possible, leaving time to work out these arrangements.

But, alas, ProQuest's representatives raised no caveats about hard-drive delivery until I actually started to inquire about the whereabouts of the materials my university had purchased.

Thus my warning: if you are attempting to do text mining research at an institution that doesn't have five terabytes of storage immediately at hand, and want to work with ProQuest data, be aware that they will take up to six months to deliver your data. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

"The City of Cairo Schottish"






This is the cover page of a piece of mid-nineteenth century sheet music entitled “The City of Cairo Schottish.” The City of Cairo was a steamboat, depicted in the illustration at the foot of the page. A schottish is a form of music popular in the nineteenth century, which musicologists identify as a country dance originating in central Europe.

In a time before phonographs or other forms of recorded music became widely available to the public, Americans typically experienced music by live performance and/or participation. Sheet music like this was widely distributed and allowed individual musicians to keep up with the latest musical trends. According to the Oxford Companion to Music, the schottish (or schottische) became popular in the England in 1878 with the publication of Tom Turner’s “Dancing in the Barn Schottisch,“ and Americans tended to favor a variety of the form identified as a “military schottische.”

Mark Twain mentions this form of music and dance in one of his letters to his brother Orion, and indicates the extent to which Americans of the mid-nineteenth century made use of sheet music, performed music in their own homes, and often danced to it.

“Ma was delighted with her trip, but she was disgusted with the girlsfor allowing me to embrace and kiss them–and she was horrified at the Schottische as performed by Miss Castle and me. She was perfectly willing for me to dance until 12 o'clock at the imminent peril of my going to sleep on the after watch–but then she would top off with a very inconsistent sermon on dancing in general; ending with a terrific broadside aimed at the heresy of heresies, the Schottische.”

       - Letter to Orion Clemens, 18 March 1861    

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Map - Early Settlement of Illinois

 Map of Illinois, 1818 | Lincoln/Net | NIU Digital Library
This map, provided by the Chicago History Museum, depicts Illinois at the time that it became the twenty-first state. In 1809 the area that became the state of Illinois was organized as the...


This map, provided by the Chicago History Museum, depicts Illinois at the time that it became the twenty-first state. In 1809 the area that became the state of Illinois was organized as the Illinois territory, with its capital at Kaskaskia. That city is visible on this map on Illinois’ southwestern border, across the Mississippi River from St. Genevieve, Missouri. Kaskaskia remained the capital of Illinois for a year, until the government removed to Vandalia, some 120 miles to the northeast. Vandalia was a very small town, not even represented on the above map, but Kaskaskia had proved unsuitable as a seat of government due to the Mississippi’s persistent threat of flooding. Vandalia also promised a more central location for a state eager to grow toward the north and east. As the map shows, much of what is now the most heavily-populated part of the state of Illinois had not even been divided into quarter sections, much less counties, at the time of statehood. 

The Illinois country was not settled by parties moving across the land from east to west. In a time of very few roads, this would have been an extremely difficult task. Instead, immigrants came to Illinois by way of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, moving largely from south to north. The parts of this map depicted as settled, organized territory were, and are, largely inhabited by people who came to Illinois from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. The wedge of land making up Illinois’ westernmost parts was also settled by way of river travel, but it was unique in that it had been set aside by Congress for settlement by veterans of the War of 1812. Note that it is identified on the map as “Military Bounty Land.”

Settlers did not come to northern, central and eastern Illinois in large numbers until the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 made that land more accessible by way of the Great Lakes and Chicago. Today those portions of the state retain a significant population descended from immigrants who came to the state from New England and the middle states, like New York and Pennsylvania.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Text-Mining Project

This fall I am working with Pradeep Maddipatla, a graduate student in Computer Science at Northern Illinois University, on a text mining project involving my field of historical research - nineteenth century American economic and social policymaking, namely the protective tariff. Our project will use topic modeling to explore how American legislators discussed this policy, but we also hope to shed light on the broader question of how they characterized state involvement in the economy and society, in positive and negative terms.

This work uses a database of text materials drawn from the Congressional Record, 1876-1896, which was organized and made ready for text mining activities by Adam Frieberg, a graduate student in Geography at Northern Illinois University who is also employed full-time as a programmer/developer.

Pradeep Mattipatla is assisted in this work by Professor Hamed Alhoori of Northern Illinois University's Department of Computer Science.



We are working with the following proposal:




“Topic Modeling Tariff Debates in the United States Congress, 1876-1896”

Drew VandeCreek, Northern Illinois University Libraries
Adam Frieberg, Northern Illinois University Department of Geography
Pradeep Maddipatla, Northern Illinois University Department of Computer Science

This project will employ text-mining technology to explore the arguments that members of the United States Congress used to support and promote legislation setting tariffs in the period 1876-1896. Historians and political scientists have identified tariffs, which set a fee or tax to be paid on imported goods, as a significant political issue in the nineteenth-century United States.  One has called it “the most important economic policy of the nineteenth-century federal government” and, save slavery, the most consequential matter facing the American state in the nineteenth century overall.[1] Questions of tariff policy often captured Americans’ ambitions and anxieties about the nation’s future course of economic and political development. They also provided an opportunity to discuss about the federal government’s proper role in society. 

The United States Congress considered major tariff bills on many occasions in the nineteenth century, but the issue took a central place in American political discourse after the Civil War. The Union’s need for revenue (and Southern legislators’ absence from Congress) led Lincoln and congressional Republicans to make the high tariff law during the conflict. Postwar Republicans took an increasingly assertive protectionist stance, and successfully resisted Democrats’ corresponding attempts to reduce tariffs. In this context the policy became a virtual litmus test of party identification. Republicans repulsed reformers’ attempts to cut tariffs in the mid-1880s, and pushed still higher duties through Congress in 1890 and, after a modest setback in 1894, again in 1897.

Although the tariff played a prominent role in the late nineteenth century’s electoral politics, scholars have paid relatively scant attention to protectionists’ and their opponents’ arguments. Of those considering the matter, the political scientist Judith Goldstein has asserted that postwar tariff proponents relied on what scholars have called Free Labor appeals, which maintained that tariff-protected industrial workers’ high wages allowed them to save the money necessary to open their own businesses, thus achieving social mobility, or what Abraham Lincoln called the “right to rise.”[2] A leading intellectual historian has suggested that this argument became discredited and was abandoned in this period, however.[3] The political scientist John Gerring has emphasized Republicans’ other appeals to labor, as well as neo-mercantilism and statism, in defense of the policy, providing brief lists of words associated with each argument.[4] Scholars analyzing tariff reformers’ attacks on the policy have mentioned their description of it as a federal grant of special privilege to manufacturers at the expense of other members of the national community, especially in the postwar period’s context of industrial consolidation and increasingly public political corruption. Some nineteenth-century tariff critics also attacked the measure as undermining individual responsibility and encouraging workers to expect something for nothing.[5]  

These interpretations of tariff debates are built on a limited evidentiary base. The Congressional Record’s verbatim account of remarks on the floor of Congress begins in 1873. It consists of well over two million individual speeches or other utterances, totaling over 2.5 million sentences. Any scholar trained in the traditional analysis of political texts (i.e., reading them her or himself) would be hard-pressed to review, much less consider and evaluate, this mass of data in the period of time traditionally devoted to a dissertation or book project. In this light, scholars’ analyses of arguments and debates over the protective tariff have focused on assorted individual works of tariff boosters and opponents, including speeches in Congress and works of journalism, as well as early works of economics and the period’s broader discourse of social science. 

The Congressional Record is today available as a database of digital full-text materials, and scholars of literature and humanities computing programmer/developers have in recent years developed a methodology that can provide a new perspective on it. Using an approach that has proved useful in the analysis of a broad range of other very large data sets, they have turned computing power and algorithms to the examination of digital text collections, comprised of many thousands of titles, that have recently become available from a number of sources.  Where traditional practitioners devoted to the close reading of a limited number of selected texts have focused on specific, particular uses of language and shades of meaning to produce detailed, highly nuanced accounts and interpretations of the texts’ arguments, advocates of what Franco Moretti has called “distant reading” and Matthew Jockers “macroanalysis” seek to discover, visualize and explore quantifiable evidence of significant patterns within these much larger collections.[6] Jockers has emphasized that the analysis of literary work at scale allows researchers to move their studies beyond a focus on the very few works that critics and scholars have acclaimed as classic or otherwise outstanding examples of literary craft to include a larger cross-section of materials, “an aggregated ecosystem or `economy’ of texts.”[7] He goes on to conclude that computational work often supports what many perceive to be common knowledge about literary works, yet provides evidence for it, as opposed to casual observations.[8] He emphasizes the prospect of using close and distant reading together, exploring the relationships between specific expressions of belief or creativity and the larger context in which individual authors situate their arguments or stories.

Intellectual historians have long turned their attention to the close reading of specific texts, often focusing especially on individuals and works for which they can demonstrate subsequent influence. Political historians and political scientists have consistently studied beliefs and ideologies as important aspects of the history of electoral activity and governance, with an equal emphasis on tracing their genealogy and influence. The proposed project will use text-mining technology to build on these disciplines’ traditional practice in several ways.

The project will build on and use of a set of applications and scripts developed in R by Adam Frieberg, as follows. 

Congressional Record text materials prepared by ProQuest are stored in a relational database with an internal index system, built on Microsoft SQL Server Express with Advanced Services.  The R code is written in modules that have already structured much of the data.
Module: Ingester – R scripts have done pattern matching using regular expressions to recursively search the directory of files to find all .xml files in the ProQuest data source that match peer full text PDF files.  From what we can tell, the ProQuest XML files contain the full text of the PDFs that were generated via OCR (Optical Character Recognition).  The R code then built an index of the files by date and focused on the entire Congressional Record from 1876 to 1896.  These two decades were chosenbecause of the “full text”/verbatim nature of the printed Congressional Record at the time, as well as their being the zenith of tariff debates in the late nineteenth century.  The R code combed each speech and identified speakers as well as the content of their speeches.  This identification relied on the reliability of speeches always starting with the string: “Mr. “.  Candidates for speeches were then filtered to exclude the sections that began with procedural words (examples: “presented”, “introduced”, “submitted”, “a bill”, “petition”, “by unanimous”).  The separated speeches were stored in a database table called Speeches1876to1896 and indexed both by their date, the names of the speakers, as well as the full text of the speeches.  They were also run as a single-threaded process in order for their data storage to preserve and resemble their order within the Congressional Record.

Module: Sentiment Analyzer – R scripts produced a more granular resolution that separated every speech by sentence.   The sentences were split by using the standard period (“.”) character.  The sentences were quality controlled by filtering out abbreviations and other places with OCR errors.  The exclusionary rules included filtering out any sentences that began with numeric characters (H.R. 234 was the typical designation for “House Resolution 234”).  It also excluded sentences beginning with the standard Congressional Record headers (“CONGRESSIONAL RECORD – SENATE” and “Also, a bill”).  Sentences were then filtered to only the sentences longer than 10 characters in length.  This was a subjective way to ensure it would retain sentences such as “Mr. COGHLAN: I concur” but not include shorter utterances such as “Mr. Smith: Aye”.  The R script then used an external 3rd-party API (Microsoft’s Cognitive Services API) to generate sentiment analysis scores for every sentence surviving those filters in the 20 years of the Congressional Record.  Those sentences are stored in the SpeechFragments20Yr database table and the sentiment analysis scores are stored in the SpeechFragments20YrSentimentAnalysis table.

Module: Index Database Views - The combination of the three prior-mentioned database tables yields a corpus of text that is indexed by speaker, time, and sentiment.  Many of the over two million individual speeches reflected in the speech indexes are clearly portions of back-and-forth utterances. This module provides a way to diagnose these speeches. The views link individual fragments of speech with parent speech objects that are then identifiable by speaker. Records have ID fields to keep them in the sequence they appeared within the print version of the Congressional Record, moving forward in time. 

Module: Topic Modeler – Pradeep will investigate modern topic modeling approaches, including Mallet and Gensim. He will consult with Dr. VandeCreek and provide sample output. Together, they will select the approach to be used in the final analysis. The goals of this topic modeling are 1) inform Dr. VandeCreek’s navigation of the full corpus in further research; 2) identify prominent topics as they may correspond to existing historical and Political Science scholarship’s description of pro- and anti-tariff arguments in this period; 3) determine if the prominence of specific topics changes over time; 4) use visualization applications to illustrate these changes for an audience unfamiliar with data science. 

                Using the above techniques, the project will first address the challenge of identifying which of the available congressional text materials discussed tariff legislation, and whether each supported or opposed a tariff bill, by using basic word search functionality, text classification, sentiment analysis, and a freely available API providing information about members of Congress and their voting histories. A machine-generated review of the Congressional Record for the period under consideration has identified a specific set of speeches, inserted documents and other utterances including the word “tariff” and/or several synonymous or related terms, including “duty/duties,” “impost(s),” “levy,” and “excise,” as well as the words “protection” and “protective,” which scholarship in History and Political Science shows were widely used to describe the policy.  Project participants will next move to create two sets of documents: those supporting the tariff and those opposing it. In the first case, Dr. VandeCreek will assemble training sets of speeches and other documents known to express pro- and anti-tariff arguments, and then ask text mining software (which?) to compare the words and patterns of words in each to those found in a set of unclassified works. This will produce a result in which the software predicts the likelihood that each unclassified document argues for or against the tariff. In the second case, the use of Microsoft Azure’s sentiment analysis application will measure the degree to which speeches discussing the tariff express positive or negative sentiment, with the working hypothesis that pro-tariff speeches will express more positive sentiment and anti-tariff speeches more negative sentiment.  Project participants will check these results against each other and make use of the ProPublica Congress API (https://projects.propublica.org/api-docs/congress-api/) to ascertain how the member of Congress responsible for a given speech, utterance or other text voted on the legislation that it addressed. Dr. VandeCreek will also make close readings of a number of randomly selected texts in the sets produced by the above means in order to determine if they have produced sufficiently accurate collections of pro- and anti-tariff text. 

                Having produced a set of pro- and anti-tariff documents, project staff members will next use the topic modeling software Mallet (http://mallet.cs.umass.edu/topics.php) and/or Gensim (https://radimrehurek.com/gensim/) to examine the sets of words that tariff proponents and opponents used to praise or condemn the policy in the period 1876-1896. Project staff members will identify individual pieces of tariff legislation that came to the floor of Congress for debate in this period, and separate those texts identified as discussing the tariff into sub-sets of materials specifically pertaining to each bill (for example, The Tariff of 1883, also known as the Mongrel Tariff due to its tepid reforms; the Mills Bill of 1888, which unsuccessfully proposed lower tariffs; and the McKinley Tariff of 1890, which produced dramatically increased tariffs). This will produce a division of materials reflecting the progress of tariff debates over time.  

Project participants will construct several topic models for pro- and anti-tariff speeches for each bill, and analyze if and, if appropriate, how members of Congress’ arguments for and against the policy changed over time. Using visualization software, they will present this data for review by historians and other interested parties who are likely to be unfamiliar with topic modeling or other text mining technologies. 

More specific research questions to be explored may include:

What topics most characterized pro- and anti-tariff arguments in the period 1876-1896?

Did these topics or arguments change over time?

Of the topics produced from a review of pro-tariff texts, do any reflect the influence of what Goldstein describes as the Free Labor appeal? If so, how many? Does their prominence change over time?

Of the topics produced from a review of pro-tariff texts, do any reflect the influence of what Gerring describes as the labor, neo-mercantilist and statist appeals? If so, how many? Does their prominence change over time?

Of the topics produced from a review of anti-tariff texts, do any include references to special privilege? To political corruption? To the undermining of individual responsibility and self-reliance? If so, how many? Does their prominence change over time?

These results will provide an opportunity to explore how postwar members of Congress discussed the prospect of a federal activity directing the course of economic and social change in the United States as it related to a policy that historians and political scientists have identified as among the century’s most significant. Project participants will present data addressing the above questions in a series of conference presentations, publications and/or reports to an audience of historians, political scientists and digital humanities scholars. They will use visualization software to present findings and illustrate interpretive discussion, especially in work directed toward the first two groups, members of which are likely to be unfamiliar with topic modeling or other text mining technologies. 


[1] J. J. Pincus “Tariffs” Encyclopedia of American Economic History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980) 439; “Tariff Policies” Encyclopedia of American Political History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984) 1259. Other works emphasizing the tariff’s importance in nineteenth-century American politics include Charles and Mary Beard The Rise of American Civilization (New York: Macmillan) 1927; H. Wayne Morgan From Hayes to McKinley (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1969); Lewis Gould “The Republican Search for a National Majority” in The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal H. Wayne Morgan, ed., (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1970); Morton Keller Regulating a New Economy: Public Policy and Economic Change in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990); Richard F. Bensel Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and The Political Economy of American Industrialization, 1877-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Judith Goldstein Ideas, Interests and American Trade Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993); Joanne Reitano The Tariff Question: The Great Debate of 1888 (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1994); John Gerring “Party Ideology in America: The National Republican Chapter, 1828-1924” Studies in American Political Development, 11 (Spring, 1997) 44-108; Rebecca Edwards Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Morton Keller “Trade Policy in Historical Perspective” in Taking Stock: American Government in the Twentieth Century, Morton Keller and R. Shep Melnick, eds. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Charles W. Calhoun “James G. Blaine and the Republican Party Vision” in The Human Tradition in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Ballard Campbell, ed., (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2000).

[2] Authors emphasizing the Free Labor argument for the tariff include Goldstein Ideas, Interests and American Trade Policy; George B. Mangold, “The Labor Argument in the American Protective Tariff Discussion.” Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, no. 246 (1906): passim; Frank Taussig, The Tariff History of the United States, 8th ed. (New York, 1931), 65–6; Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York, 1970), 20–1; Dorothy Ross, Origins of American Social Science (New York, 1990), 47–8; Michael Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (New York, 1999), 69–70, 952 (quotation at 69); Gabor Borritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Memphis, 1978), 99, 113, 139. 

[3]  Dorothy Ross states that Free Labor ideology quickly faded from use after the Civil War in Origins of American Social Science, 48.  

[4] Gerring, "Party Ideology in America: The National Republican Chapter"

[5] Keller “Trade Policy in Historical Perspective” 19. 

[6] Matthew Jockers Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013) 20; Franco Moretti Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013).

[7] Jockers Macroanalysis, 32.

[8] Jockers Macroanalysis, 30.

Phrenological View of Black Hawk

Phrenological Bust of Black Hawk, 1838 | Lincoln/Net | NIU Digital Library
This page from the American Phrenological Journal purports to discuss personality traits of the Sac and Fox Chief Black Hawk, who led his nation in the Black Hawk War of 1832....




Phrenological View of Black Hawk, 1838

(http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-lincoln%3A32006 )


This page from the American Phrenological Journal purports to discuss personality traits of the Sac and Fox Chief Black Hawk, who led his nation in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Many Americans of the time considered phrenology, which arrived at conclusions based on the measurements of the human head, to be a science. Phrenology’s founder, the German physician Franz Joseph Gall, suggested that individual brain functions took place in specific physical locations within the brain. He mixed this observation with his period’s emphasis on “faculty psychology,” which viewed the mind as a set of separate elements related to discrete personal characteristics. In the text accompanying the above illustration we can see the author naming some of these characteristics as “secretiveness,” “combativeness,” cautiousness,” and “ideality,” as well as “intellect” and feeling.”

Gall’s emphasis on individual mental functions’ location in specific parts of the brain remains a proposition not without scientific, medical foundation, but, as the above item shows, his followers often took it to a level of specificity that far exceeded the modest data - skull measurements - to which they had access.

Monday, September 11, 2017

"A Study in Hats": William Jennings Bryan and the Presidential Campaign of 1896

“A Study in Hats: William Jennings Bryan Campaign Event, 1896″ | Illinois During the Gilded Age | NIU Digital Library
 
While his Republican competitor William McKinley conducted a studied “front porch campaign” bringing hand-picked groups of supporters to his Canton, Ohio residence, the 1896 Democratic and Populist presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan set out on a grueling speaking tour. This photograph depicts Bryan (standing at center of platform) at an unknown event on that tour. A powerful orator, Bryan emphasized the inflation of the national currency, principally by the monetization of silver, in his campaign. Many Americans in debt believed that this policy would benefit them because it would make the currency in which they paid what they owed less valuable than the currency they had borrowed. Many creditors supported a currency backed by gold, which they believed stood to retain its value, for the same reason. McKinley defeated Bryan in 1896 by a margin of 271 electoral votes to 176. The Republican found his greatest support in the northeast and Great Lake States, while Bryan swept the South and West, with the exception of Oregon and California. Historians have often characterized the election of 1896 as one of the most pivotal in American history. McKinley’s assassination in 1901 made Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt his successor, and the Republican Party did not cede the presidency until Woodrow Wilson’s victory in 1912.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Battle of Monterrey and the Mexican-American War


The Battle of Monterrey, an encounter in the Mexican-American War, took place September 21-24, 1846.  Approximately 6.500 United States troops under the command of Gen. Zachary Taylor attacked the fortified city, which was defended by 10,000 Mexican soldiers led by General Pedro de Ampudia. Taylor approached the city from the east, and sent another contingent on flanking movement to the southwest to block the Mexican troops’ escape route. Pinned in, Ampudia on the evening of the 22nd directed his troops to take up defensive positions within the city of Monterrey. On the 23rd the two armies engaged in house-to-house combat there.  As the U.S. troops prepared for a new assault on the next morning, Ampudia moved to surrender, and Taylor allowed him and his troops to leave the city.

The United States’ armed conflict with Mexico largely emerged from Americans’ eagerness to expand their nation westward to the Pacific Ocean. As American trappers and settlers poured across the Great Plains, many began to resent the fact that lands to the south and west of the Louisiana Purchase tract remained territories of Mexico, which had freed itself from Spanish colonial control in 1821. Americans’ persistent attempts to settle these lands led to conflict with the Mexican government and, eventually, war.

The Mexican Republic had welcomed Americans to settle in their northern territory of Texas in the 1820s, but after a decade it became plain that the Americans disliked Mexican rule. In 1835 the American settlers revolted against Mexico and, in the following year, established their own Republic of Texas. Many Americans immediately began to demand that their nation make Texas a part of the United States. The Mexican government warned that this would mean war.

In 1844 Americans elected James K. Polk as the nation’s new president. Polk had campaigned on the issue of national expansion, calling for the annexation of Texas, Mexican California, and the Oregon Territory that the United States and Great Britain had occupied jointly since 1818. Just before leaving office in early 1845 President John Tyler, a Virginian seeking to provide a new area into which slavery might expand, secured a joint resolution from Congress annexing Texas to the United States. Mexico responded by breaking off diplomatic relations.

Upon taking office President Polk immediately turned to the acquisition of Mexico’s northern territories. He first instructed his minister to Mexico to negotiate for the purchase of the territories, but this proposal sparked a wave of indignation and nationalist fervor in Mexico, and the minister left Mexico after only a few months.

Angry that Mexico had rebuffed his offer, Polk sent U.S. troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande River in January of 1846. Mexican officials believed that the Texas-Mexico frontier stood one hundred miles to the north, at the Nueces River, and interpreted Polk’s move as a deliberate provocation. Mexican troops quickly arrived at the Rio Grande as well, and skirmishes broke out between the two forces. Polk leaped to argue that “Mexico… has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” Congress quickly provided him with a declaration of war.

In 1845 an American editor wrote that the American annexation of Texas represented the “fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” By 1846 newspapers across the country had appropriated the term “manifest destiny” in their attempts to show that God intended the American nation to stretch from Atlantic to Pacific.

The United States’ decisive victory in the Mexican War added some 500,000 square miles of new territory to the nation. These lands included Texas, as well as the Mexican territories of New Mexico and Upper California. Eventually they would become the American states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and comprise significant parts of Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and Wyoming. Their acquisition intensified debate over the question of slavery’s future in the West: would slaveholders be able to take slave property into the acquired territories and establish a slave economy there? Would the new states that emerged from the territory won from Mexico be slave or free?

Friday, June 16, 2017

James B. Weaver and Populism


James B. Weaver ( June 12, 1833–February 6, 1912) was the People’s (or Populist) Party candidate for President of the United States in 1892. He was born in Dayton, Ohio and lived in Michigan as a child before his family settled near Bloomfield, Iowa in 1833.  Practicing law, he took an early interest in politics, and attended the 1860 Republican National Convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln. He served as an officer in the Civil War. Unsuccessful in Iowa politics and unhappy with the Republican Party’s stance on issues of concern to Iowa farmers, Weaver joined the new Greenback Party in 1877. In the following year he won election to Congress. In 1880 he became the party’s presidential nominee and won over 300,000 votes - about 3.3% of those cast.

When the Greenback Party dissolved Weaver joined the Populist Party, an organization that took up the Greenbackers’ call for in increased money supply, and added a broader agenda emphasizing agrarian reform. In 1892 Weaver won the Populists’ presidential nomination, campaigning on a platform that called for unlimited coinage of silver, an income tax, an eight-hour work day, and government ownership of railroads. He campaigned nationwide, accompanied by his wife Clara, and often the Kansan Mary Elizabeth Lease. He gained over one million votes - 8.5 percent of the total. He won the states of Kansas, Colorado, Nevada and Idaho outright, and also collected delegates in North Dakota and Oregon. In 1896 the Populists merged with the Democratic Party and nominated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska for the presidency. Weaver supported Bryan. In a campaign that revisited many of the issues considered in 1892, the Republican William McKinley won election by a decisive margin.

This image is available on the Illinois During the Gilded Age web site and the NIU Digital Library

See American Populism, 1876-1896 for a fuller discussion of the Populist movement and its politics. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Mary Elizabeth Lease - He Shall Be Rescued from Such a Fate


Created by B.M. Justice, this illustration from Mary E. Lease’s The Problem of Civilization Solved paints a grim picture of life in the Gilded-Age United States. It shows a single individual besieged by attacking dogs (or wolves) and a bird of prey. Lease was a vocal advocate of the Populist Party and critic of the period’s vogue of Social Darwinism and laissez-faire individualism, a sentiment that the above illustration captures vividly. Yet she was not an advocate of government provision of social welfare payments or benefits, which she derided as “class legislation.” Rather, she advocated a government program removing “the deserving poor, the honest men and women who are willing to work but to whom work has been denied,” from large cities and settling them in the countryside. “They can be rescued from their poverty,” she concluded. (373)

She wrote: “Obese satiety elbows starvation it every turn along our streets. The tide of pauperism is steadily rising and we are rapidly approaching the condition of Europe in the last century. Class legislation has done much to swell the list of America’s paupers, but Europe’s system of dumping its pauperized class upon our shores has done more. An ever-increasing swarm of dependents are with us. The cause can be traced to class legislation and militarism. The one the curse of our free institutions and the other the bane of European civilization. The remedy lies, not in doling out alms to humanity until the recipients of charity become chronic beggars, but in first removing the cause of extreme poverty by giving every toiler access to the soil, making the ballot the key to unlock the garner where his birthright lies.” (5)

Lease attacked laissez-faire economics from a humanitarian perspective, and linked it to the Populist agenda: “Then let all who love mankind more than millionaires unite for the common welfare. We will introduce the initiative and referendum, nationalize our railroads and labor saving machinery, issue paper money redeemable by taxation and remonetize silver.” (374) Yet she ultimately addressed the issue of urban poverty from the point of view of utility, efficiency and administration, and even raised the issue of eugenic measures: “Love and goodness, backed by the strong force of the state, must go down into the dens where the human wild beasts of society hide from the light of day, and empowered by that wise legislation that removes the leper or prevents the smallpox patient from contaminating his fellow beings remove the social Huns of the cities to lands set aside and purchased by the government for their use, subjecting them to such medical inspection and treatment as will check the reckless propagation of criminals and devitalized humanity. The pauperized class should be given an opportunity to work out their own fortunes under favoring conditions. Our first care should be to send them out under supervision of agents who could supervise large plantations, the tillage of which could be overseen and made profitable for them; having all their work planned for them by the agent, they would in time learn thrift and business capacity. Eventually they would become proprietors, reaping the incentive of all labor, just remuneration. The purchase of lands, medical inspection and government agencies would cost the state less than the never-ending expense now entailed for inadequate police protection arid the erection and equipment of buildings that are constantly over-filled by a constantly increased army of criminals. Stem the current of corrupt humanity by removing the fount from which it flows, make the vicious and idle dependent upon their own efforts with the incentive of compensation, all the compensation that life holds if they succeed and the alternative of annihilation if they fail to put forth honest effort when the helping hand is extended, for while God was severe in his denunciations of those who oppress the laborer he was none the less severe in his denunciation of the idler. `If a man shall not work neither shall he eat.’“ (371-2)

Lease provided a fascinating vision of a powerful, administrative state in America, yet it was one informed by the classical liberal tradition that she sought to critique.

All quotations are from Mary Elizabeth Lease The Problem of Civilization Solved (Chicago: Laird and Lee, 1895)



Illinois During the Gilded Age Populist Party Mary Elizabeth Lease