1800 and the politics of the absolute

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In these days of high-octane political rhetoric and a party system defined more by “voting against the opposing party rather than for their own party,” it’s worth casting back into American history to another time when political tensions ran so high that each side believed the other would lead to the destruction of American ideals. Unlike now, things got so divisive that some states talked about seceding from the union and even stockpiled arms and mobilized militias to achieve their political goals through force.

I speak not of 1860, when all those things happened on the road to a brutal and bloody civil war, but rather of 1800 — when all those things happened but were averted just shy of bloodshed.

This seminal election was held when most of America’s Founding Fathers and drafters of the Constitution were not only alive but were active political leaders. Why were such men willing to risk dismemberment of the Union they had fought so hard to forge? Part of it reflects a tense time, with war in Europe threatening to spill over into America, and part of it reflects the still tenuous American political experiment.

But much of the cause, James Roger Sharp argues in his book “American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis,” was how leaders of both the Federalist and Republican proto-parties viewed the beliefs and activities of their counterparts. There was “no acceptance of the idea of a loyal opposition, nor was there a tradition of political parties sharing and alternating in power.”1

Instead, members of both parties believed that the “public good” was objectively determinable, and that reasonable men would thus naturally arrive at this public good through debate and discussion. When it became evident that deep divisions about the proper direction of the country existed and persisted, the Founding Fathers did not question the idea of a single, easily discoverable public good. Instead, “followers of each proto-party believed that their vision exclusively embraced the public good”2 — and that the opposing party, by process of deduction, was operating contrary to the public good.

The intolerance bred by such attitudes forced the leaders of the proto-parties to cast desperately around for new modes or approaches to vanquish their (antagonists)… Leaders sought to tap, organize, and channel the ultimate source of political strength in a republic — the people — in order to legitimize their own interpretation of the public good.”3

But when elections went against these early American political leaders, they didn’t conclude that the other side’s views had been legitimized. Instead, these elections were “evidence rather that the people had been temporarily misled by unscrupulous leaders outside the republican consensus, leaders who had been animated by crass, self-interested and partisan objectives.”4

This slow march toward civil war picked up steam in 1798, when America was in the middle of an undeclared naval war with France. Federalists, who controlled Congress and the presidency, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which, among other things, punished anyone who “unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States… or to impede the operation of any law of the United States… or to intimidate any person holding a place or office in or under the government of the United States,” and to ban “any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government.”5

These extremely provocative laws outraged Thomas Jefferson and other Republicans. In response, Jefferson and James Madison authored the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, which asserted states’ rights contra the federal government and even — in earlier versions, before being tempered by moderate allies or in the face of opposition, advocated a right of secession.

During the debate over the Virginia Resolutions, Federalist Virginians hit upon what seemed like a master stroke: though Republicans claimed outrage over the Alien and Sedition Acts, they had passed a Virginia Sedition Act in 1792, and Jefferson was on the record saying that “in preventing the abridgment of the freedom of the press, punishment for uttering falsehoods ought not be inhibited.”

Sharp, however, notes that “the Virginia Republicans were not, in their own eyes, being hypocritical.”

Since they sincerely believed they were the defenders of republicanism, they saw the powers of government in their hands being used to further noble goals, whereas power in the hands of the Federalists, who represented factious interests, was being used to undermine the general good. Politics in the early republic… was the politics of the absolute and not the politics of interest brokerage.6

That attitude about the general good would have far more significant consequences than merely justifying a bit of apparent hypocrisy.

Tensions ran so high in the latter years of the Adams administration that Virginia Republicans didn’t merely debate secession — they appear to have actively stockpiled arms toward that end. Fears ran high “about Federalist plots to use the newly strengthened army led by Alexander Hamilton to destroy domestic opposition;”7 in response, the Virginia legislature voted on party lines “to arm the militia, and to make provision to purchase 5,000 stands of arms.”8 The purpose, one contemporaneous Republican admitted, was “enabling (the people) to oppose the government of the United States.” 9

Federalists, for their part, heard rumors of Virginia stockpiling weapons and took them very seriously. Hamilton proposed a range of measures to destroy sectional opposition to the federalist regime. “‘Vigorous measures of counteraction” had to be adopted, he concluded, for it had become obvious that the opposition had resolved to make the union’s ‘existence a question of force.'”10 He proposed expanding the army and navy, dividing states into districts and appointing federal justices of the peace “to avoid obstruction by local judges,” and tightening sedition laws beyond even the existing Alien and Sedition Acts to “preserve confidence in the officers of the general government, by preserving their reputation from malicious and unfounded slanders.”

Most radically, Hamilton even privately proposed to divide “the great states” into multiple smaller states with the aim of destroying big states’ — read, Virginia’s — ability to resist the federal government.11 Federalists in Congress even proposed a “remarkable bill” that would have let a committee appointed by the Federalist-controlled Congress “decide which votes to count and which ones to disallow” in presidential elections.12 They then pursued criminal charges against a Republican newspaper editor for “unauthorized publication” of the bill. (The measure was ultimately defeated in Congress, and the editor avoided prosecution by hiding until Congress adjourned — to the great annoyance of James Monroe, who was hoping for “the creation of a Republican martyr.”13)

After the Election of 1800 ended in a tie between Jefferson and his ostensible running mate Aaron Burr, “rumors swept Washington, D.C…. and the various state capitals about Federalist plots to deny Jefferson the presidency by a usurpation of power or by throwing support to Burr. Talk was rife about militias arming, a possible civil war and the breakup of the union.”14 In two mysterious — and, to many, suspicious — fires, the War Department burned down on Nov. 8, 1800, followed by parts of the Treasury Department on Jan. 20, 1801. Each side believed the blazes to be arson but blamed the other for setting them.

Tensions swept higher. Federalists in Congress debated ways they could hold on to power despite the Federalist Adams losing the election decisively. Jefferson told Monroe, the governor of Virginia, that if Federalists tried to usurp the government, “the middle states would arm.” The Washington Federalist newspaper dismissed these concerns, arguing that the “militia of Massachusetts… with those of New Hampshire and Connecticut united almost to a man” would easily suppress “factious foreigners in Pennsylvania or a few fighting bacchanals of Virginia.”15

Talk of uprisings in Pennsylvania and Virginia was not mere rumor. Monroe and Republican Gov. Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania “took bold steps under the cloak of secrecy to prepare their states for a possible military confrontation. McKean made arrangements to mobilize his state’s militia force in the event of a showdown. Monroe made plans to use the Virginia militia to block the federal government from removing the federal arms stored in a Virginia arsenal and from transporting them out of the state.”16 Federalist governors apparently took no such concrete steps, but Federalists in Congress did seriously consider a strategy of preventing the House of Representatives from meeting to decide the election — which would let them appoint the Federalist President of the Senate as acting president when Adams’ term expired. When some Federalists despaired of the deadlock and proposed to let Jefferson win, New Englander congressmen allegedly “declared they meant to go without a constitution and take the risk of a Civil War.”17

The crisis was only averted when several Federalists decided the wrong president was better than no president and abstained, allowing Jefferson’s election. (Hamilton’s anti-Burr letter-writing campaign during this time helped lead to the duo’s infamous and fatal 1804 duel.)

During those critical days in late 1800 and early 1801, public men considered violence and the destruction of the union as distinct and even likely possibilities. Both Federalists and Republicans seemed willing to go to the bink to secure an electoral victory… There was a peaceful transition of power from the Federalists to the Republicans in 1801, but the potential for violence was real. The country was in as much peril then as in any other era in American history with the single exception of the Civil War.18

In hindsight the Election of 1800 is seen as a turning point, a peaceful transition of power from one party to another — “a milestone in republican government.”19 But “clearly this was not the way the participants in perceived the transfer of power. For political parties to have ‘come of age’ in 1800 would have required a general acceptance and toleration of an opposition party on the national level. This had not been established by 1800 and indeed evolved only gradually over the next few decades.”20

Jefferson, indeed, saw his presidential victory not as a foundation for the alteration of power, but as a permanent vindication of his ideals and reputation of the Federalists’. “To the victorious men of 1800 and their immediate successors, a ‘band of patriots’ — the Republicans — had saved the nation from the excesses of party, excesses that were embodied in Federalism. And it was up to the Republicans to (ensure) that the Federalists were never handed the reins of power again.”21

Later, Jefferson would declare “that the Republicans were far more than a political party.”

“The Republicans,” he declared, “are the nation.22

It would take another 25 years for America’s political system to evolve into what we know today, when Martin Van Buren organized the Democratic Party (followed shortly in its image by the Whigs) along the principle of parties as “valuable institutions” that kept “strife within manageable limits,” and of organized opposition having “a powerful, beneficial role in forcing the majority party to seek unity and cohesion in order to escape defeat.”23 Fortunately, the dangerous crisis of 1800 did not recur in the time it took for this new intellectual model to emerge. (And of course the even more damaging crisis of 1860, when strife broke free of the “manageable limits” placed on it by the old Jacksonian party system, happened under Van Buren’s model.)

Does the broadening partisan gap in 21st Century American politics reflect a return to the uncompromising late 18th Century ideas that helped take the Founding Fathers to the brink of civil war? However much modern-day Democrats and Republicans hate each other, that seems over-strong. History may repeat itself, but usually in variation rather than an echo. Besides, while the flaws in the Founding Fathers’ “civic republicanism” ideology seem evident today, they certainly didn’t seem evident at the time. So who is to say that we are any more self-aware about our own beliefs and assumptions than Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton were? But understanding the consequences of the “politics of the absolute” can be a helpful corrective whenever modern politics gets too heated.


  1. James Roger Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 282
  2. Ibid., 11
  3. Ibid., 11-12
  4. Ibid., 276-277
  5. Ibid., 177
  6. Ibid., 198
  7. Ibid., 203
  8. Ibid., 204
  9. Ibid., 205
  10. Ibid., 216
  11. Ibid., 216-17
  12. Ibid., 219
  13. Ibid., 220
  14. Ibid., 250
  15. Ibid., 267
  16. Ibid., 268-9
  17. Ibid., 271
  18. Ibid., 274-5
  19. Ibid., 273
  20. Ibid., 274
  21. Ibid., 286-7
  22. Ibid., 277-8
  23. Ibid., 285
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Written by David Montgomery

November 11th, 2015 at 1:27 pm

Posted in History

Bad omens

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In their post-apocalyptic comedy novel “Good Omens,” authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman describe the nefarious handiwork of the demon Crowley, an agent of Hell on Earth with a particularly acute grasp of human nature:


A “Good Omens”-inspired rendition of the M25 motorway, with a slightly garbled quote from the Gaiman/Pratchett book explaining the meaning of the Satanic rune the motorway allegedly forms.

Many phenomena — wars, plagues, sudden audits — have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.

Where they go wrong, of course, is assuming the wretched road is evil simply because of the incredible carnage and frustration it engenders every day.

In fact very few people on the face of the planet knew that the very shape of the M25 forms the sigil odegra in the language of the Black Priesthood of Ancient Mu, and means: “Hail the Great Beast, Devourer of Worlds.” The thousands of motorists who daily fume their way around its serpentine lengths have the same effect as water on a prayer wheel, grinding out an endless fog of low-grade evil to pollute the metaphysical atmosphere for scores of miles around.

It was one of Crowley’s better achievements. It had taken years to achieve, and had involved three computer hacks, two break-ins, one minor bribery and, on one wet night when all else had failed, two hours in a squelchy field shifting the marker pegs a few but occultly incredibly significant meters. When Crowley had watched the first thirty-mile-long tailback he’d experienced the lovely warm feeling of a bad job well done.

Remembering this passage now as I live in St. Paul — just an hour away from Gaiman’s current home in Menomonie, Wisconsin — has me fixated on one thought: Did Crowley ever pay a visit to Minnesota during the planning of the downtown intersections of Interstate 94 with Interstates 35E and 35W?


I-94 doesn’t merely intersect with its north-south cousins in downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, but it actually merges with them for one-mile stretches through the densest parts of the 3.8 million-resident metropolitan area. The concurrences cause miles-long back backups every rush hour as cars are funneled together and then yanked apart, with a significant portion of those cars attempting to cross multiple lanes of traffic to continue on their planned routes. Moreover, it’s actually impossible to make certain direct exchanges — shifting from eastbound I-94 to southbound I-35E, for example — without leaving the interstate altogether and using side roads.

I’m sure there are reasonable spatial and financial reasons for constructing the mergers this way, and even a perfectly designed interchange would have rush hour backups from the sheer traffic volume — as some other merger-less Twin Cities interchanges do. But still: my hypothesis remains the devil’s hand at work.

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Written by David Montgomery

November 9th, 2015 at 9:15 am

Posted in Books

Planting seeds of journalism and defeat

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Almost eight years ago to the day, Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the vital caucus state of Iowa shot itself in the foot. I helped pull the trigger.

It was early November, and Clinton was still the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. But in retrospect she had already begun the decline that saw her finish a shocking third place in the Iowa caucuses, and thus the decline that saw her lose the nomination to an Illinois senator named Barack Obama. On Oct. 30, Clinton had stumbled badly in a national debate when she waffled on the question of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. On Nov. 10, Obama would deliver an acclaimed speech at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner that helped accelerate his Iowa campaign.

In between, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, Clinton visited Newton, Iowa, and called on a 19-year-old Grinnell College sophomore named Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff, who asked a question about her approach to climate change.

Also at the event was a reporter for the Scarlet & Black, the Grinnell student newspaper, of which I was co-editor. The reporter, Pat Caldwell,  naturally interviewed Gallo-Chasanoff about her experience getting to ask Clinton a question, but got way more than she bargained for: Gallo-Chasanoff mentioned off-handedly that a Clinton staffer had given her the question to ask.

“I said ‘Yeah, can I ask how her energy plan compares to the other candidates’ energy plans?'” Gallo-Chasanoff later told CNN about the incident. Instead, she told CNN, the staffer said Clinton might not be familiar with the other candidates’ plans, and instead opened a binder to a page with more than a half-dozen questions on it. The top question, which said “college student” in brackets, read: “As a young person, I’m worried about the long-term effects of global warming. How does your plan combat climate change?”

Caldwell immediately recognized the news in Gallo-Chasanoff’s off-handed mention of the planted question, but tried to play it cool to avoid spooking her in the middle of the interview.

The scramble

But things didn’t come together easily. Clinton representatives on campus quickly pushed back on the story, and they successfully got to Gallo-Chasanoff. A few hours after talking to Caldwell, she emailed him to try to put the genie back in the bottle:

“im feeling a little uncomfortable about the whole planted questions thing so i’d really appreciate it if you would talk to emily or jordan about it first and please respect whatever wishes they have regarding the info,” Gallo-Chasanoff wrote to Caldwell in an email. She later told CNN that “a Clinton intern spoke to her to say the campaign requested she not talk about the story to any more media outlets and that if she did she should inform a staffer.”

“Emily” and “Jordan” were the on-campus leaders of the Clinton campaign. Caldwell, myself and co-editor-in-chief Abby Rapoport agreed quickly that we weren’t going to defer to the Clinton campaign’s wishes and forged ahead.

As Rapoport took the lead in working with Caldwell, I tackled another problem: at this very moment, the Scarlet & Black was in the middle of a long-overdue website overhaul. The paper’s old site had become essentially nonfunctional, and for some time we had only uploaded PDF versions of the paper. If individual articles were posted at all, they went onto a free Blogspot blog. We had hired a student, Saugar Sainju, to build us a new website, but the project wasn’t supposed to be done for a few more weeks.

I emailed the Sainju with the subject line “Urgent—web site”:

We’re going to have a major story coming out in this Friday’s issue. It’s political and will probably attract a lot of traffic from political sites. We’d like to have this coming to our web site, rather than the blog or a third party site.

Is there any way we can rush the web site, or at least one particular article, up by Friday afternoon? This would automatically kick in that extra bonus I talked about–$750 for the job.

For the bonus, he agreed to rush the job. (Though neither of us are quite sure, I believe the $750 was the total cost for the job, not the bonus. Our paper had limited budgets.)

The article continued to face difficulties. We couldn’t track down a Clinton spokesperson to get the response the story needed — though the other Iowa campaigns responded quickly to our vaguely worded inquiries about planted questions, seemingly worried that the story might have been about them. On-campus Clinton leaders met with us to try to kill the story. We were starting to feel nervous about the story as our deadline approached.

All this time, the staff still had to produce the regular paper by Thursday night — 20 pages long including a special section on mental health on campus, while juggling our normal class schedules. (At Grinnell, the Scarlet & Black has no academic affiliation, so students work on it like a campus job while taking a full courseload.) Even before the Clinton article arose, both Features and Sports had planned articles fall through, necessitating a scramble to fill the vacated space. Moreover, Caldwell was the Features editor, responsible for editing and designing a section of the paper in addition to writing his story. Rapoport stepped in to handle his editing duties.

Finally, late Thursday evening, the Clinton campaign got back to us. Their response didn’t just give us the quote we needed for the story — it also helped quell our fears. Clinton’s Iowa communications director drove from a small town into cell phone range to try to talk Caldwell into not running the story, but his tone immediately made it clear that this had actually happened. The Clinton spokesperson ducked Caldwell’s questions, giving him only the non-denial that “It’s not a practice of our campaign to ask people to ask specific questions.” We finished the story Thursday night — really into Friday morning — and got a few hours of sleep.

By midday Friday, our web designer finished the new template to upload the planted-questions story (and one other article, just so it didn’t look like we had made the website just for this one article, even though we had). Rival campaigns made sure that political media got the story, and suddenly the Scarlet & Black was at the center of the a national media frenzy.


The aftermath

By Friday evening, Caldwell had been deluged with requests from national reporters wanting to interview him as a part of the story. He emailed me at 8:10 p.m. with the subject “national attention.”

planted-questions-email“Just wanted to give you a heads up,” he wrote. “I was over in pubs office and answered a phone call that was from ABC news. A Hillary reporter found my story and was calling looking for me. I talked to her for a few minutes, and it’s likely they are going to be doing something on it… It’s starting to sound like this story could really catch on further than just the blogosphere.”

At 2:16 a.m. Saturday morning — we were college students — our copy editor emailed with the headline “We did it!” to note that Fox News had published a story about the planted question in which they got the Clinton campaign to admit planting the question (though Fox referred to the college as “Grinnell University”).

Caldwell ultimately did a national television interview from our paper’s office. Our student newspaper story was the lead link on the Drudge Report for two days, which made us glad that the college’s robust servers were hosting our content.

I wrote a story for the next week’s S&B about the national reaction — which led to one of my more embarrassing moments as a journalist. I did a phone interview with Major Garrett, then Fox News’ Obama beat reporter, but a day after the interview my computer’s hard drive crashed. I lost the interview notes and was forced to beg for a do-over interview — which I never ended up getting. As student newspaper reporter I was lucky to get one interview with a national figure; I wasn’t going to get a second chance.

For Clinton, the incident stung. A story about planting questions would be bad for any campaign. But like Clinton’s driver’s license answer, the planted questions story was particularly damaging for Clinton because it reinforced a narrative about her: that she would say or do anything to get elected.

Would Clinton have still lost the Iowa caucuses without a controversy about planted questions? Almost certainly. But it didn’t help, another cut in a steady diet of bad news Clinton endured in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses.

In addition to the statewide repercussions, the planted question story had local impact, too. For months before the story, the Clinton campaign had been preparing for an as-yet-unscheduled campaign visit by Clinton to the Grinnell College campus. After the planted question story, all that talk suddenly stopped. Clinton never did campaign at Grinnell College, a center of Democratic caucus goers — possibly to avoid reviving an embarrassing campaign incident. (Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, did give a speech on her behalf, though he didn’t take media questions at the event.) All the other major Democratic candidates that year made at least one stop on campus.

That hurt Clinton come caucus day, when her supporters were humiliatingly blown out of the water at the on-campus caucus — earning no delegates and finishing behind not just Obama and John Edwards but also then-Sen. Joe Biden, who would drop out of the race after the Iowa Caucuses.

But time heals all wounds. Yesterday, on Nov. 3, 2015, Hillary Clinton finally visited Grinnell College for a rally eight years after a planted question nearby contributed to her loss of the nomination. Her town hall event focused on gun control and the minimum wage and apparently included no references to the 2007 planted question incident.

The journalism


But the story definitely would never have broken without the Scarlet & Black, and for that, I’ll always be proud, even though I was just an editor on the story, not the writer. It was the first real major scoop I was ever involved with as a journalist.

We didn’t get the scoop through any hard-core Woodward-and-Bernstein investigations, but because our reporter was trying to write a small-bore, hyper-local story for the campus newspaper about a student who got to ask a question to a presidential candidate. A national reporter, following a candidate around in case they make news and listening to them give the same stump speech and take similar questions at event after event, might have never gone to the trouble of talking to the girl who asked about global warming. Were I covering such an event today, I probably wouldn’t have.

Many of the key players in this incident have continued in journalism. I stayed in political reporting after graduation, in South Dakota for six years and now for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Caldwell went on to write for The American Prospect and Mother Jones, while Rapoport wrote for the Texas Tribune, the Texas Observer and the Prospect.

Sainju stayed in web development, and said the rush job to finish the S&B’s website for this story was a key element on his resume early on and helped establish him in the field.

Ironically, looking back on this first big scoop with the eye of an experienced journalist, we made a lot of mistakes. The article backed leisurely into the planted question issue with a discursive lede about the nature of the Iowa caucuses, instead of a straight news lede (“Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign planted a question with a Grinnell College student at a Tuesday event in Newton”) or an anecdotal lede (“Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff ’10 got a brush with fame Tuesday when presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton called on her to ask a question at a Newton rally. But Gallo-Chasanoff’s question about climate change didn’t come from the second-year student. Instead, a Clinton aide gave her the pre-written question, Gallo-Chasnoff said.”).

sandb-coverMore glaringly, we totally buried the story in our print edition. The lead article in the Nov. 9, 2007 Scarlet & Black was about the annual “Love Your Body Week” event — likely chosen because it had the best photo of any of our news stories that week — while additional stories covered on-campus events including assaults at a Halloween party, the hiring of a new dean and the travails of a proposed campus drug policy.

The Clinton story appeared on the 10th page of the paper, in a special section devoted to Iowa Caucus stories. We did tease the story on the bottom of the front page — but again in an oblique, backwards manner: “Are presidential campaigns planting questions in the audience at events?” asked the third of four “Inside this S&B” teasers at the bottom of the page.

But despite all that students apparently did manage to find it. Don Smith, a professor emeritus at Grinnell and at the time the chair of the local county Democrats, told Guardian reporter (and 2006 Grinnell alum) Ben Jacobs that the planted question story “may have cut back on student support” for Clinton — either directly, or by keeping her from doing a campus rally that might have garnered more supporters.

Despite our placement of the story in print, we knew the planted question story would be bigger national news than it was locally. Our focus had been on getting the story online, rather than splashing it over the front of the paper. Were I in charge today, I’d have made sure to lead the paper with the Clinton article. But I didn’t feel bad at the time about its placement. It was a learning experience as a journalist, and having been free to make mistakes like our placement of the Clinton story helped make me into the reporter I am today.


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Written by David Montgomery

November 4th, 2015 at 9:31 am

Posted in Miscellany

A host unto himself: ‘Hamilton’ astonishes

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I realize that I am somewhat biased, as someone whose idea of recreation is reading late-18th Century biography. So keep that in mind but try to set my funny sense of fun aside when I tell you that the new musical “Hamilton” is the most electric listening experience I’ve had in years.
A bunch of guys in breeches and frock coats singing about arcane two-century-old political disputes? Well, I did like “1776,” but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” is something else entirely. Read my review and hear some samples after the jump.

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Written by David Montgomery

September 25th, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Posted in Music


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While researching historical elections this week for a future blog post, I stumbled across a fascinating piece of data: a table from an 1876 almanac summarizing the literacy rates in each of the 87 French départements at the time. The results varied wildly, from near-universal literacy in Paris and the country’s industrial northeast to majority illiteracy in the interior of La France profonde.

“The census of 1872 showed an extraordinary difference in the degree of education between the 87 departments of France, the percentage of ignorance ranging between six and sixty,” wrote Frederick Martin in The Statesman’s Year-Book: Statistical and Historical Annual of the States of the Civilised World: Handbook for Politicians and Merchants for the year 1876.


While the northeastern corner of France is a dense cluster of strong education, there are other pockets of literacy as well. “Some regions that were supposed to be far from the light of civilization turned out to have surprisingly high rates of literacy,” writes Graham Robb in The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. By 1830, “many Alpine villages had been running their own schools for decades.”

Overall about 30 percent of the French population over 6 years old was unable to read or write. In the United States at that time, the illiteracy rate at 14 or up (a different, more generous threshold) was about 20 percent — and about 10 percent if one excluded African-Americans, many of whom had been forbidden by law to read or write less than a decade before. (The French illiteracy rate was higher among adults over 20, at 33 percent, than it was among children 6 to 20, at 24 percent, so I’m not sure how much the different age cutoffs between the French and American censuses matters.)

Hurting the French literacy rate was the aftermath of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, which saw France forced to cede several northeastern provinces to the new country of Germany. These provinces, as can be inferred from the map, had very high literacy rates.

“In the departments now constituting the German ‘Reichsland’ of Alsace-Lorraine, France lost the most educated portion of her former inhabitants,” Martin wrote. “The progress of education indicated in the census returns of 1866 and 1872 was very slight, due to some extent to the loss of these provinces.”

(This census in question was taken during the time of the French political conflicts I wrote about in March in “The Accidental Republic” — a post whose sources also inform this analysis.)

After the jump, an exploration of some of the factors behind this varying literacy rate, as well as an interactive version of the map:

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Written by David Montgomery

July 21st, 2015 at 9:00 am

Posted in History,Maps,My work

Pure stupidity

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Today, my colleague Rachel Stassen-Berger and our competitor J. Patrick Coolican had a Twitter fight about how Patrick reacted to one of Minnesota’s senators attending a rock concert.

It was, everyone involved readily admitted, pretty stupid.

But Patrick made a further claim: that the exchange was, in fact, the stupidest Twitter fight of the day (to that point, about 12 hours old). Rachel disagreed:

After Patrick’s co-worker Ricardo declared himself to be on #TeamCoolican, Rachel asked me to back her up. This was a mistake:

As of Rachel’s comment at 12:06 p.m. today, there had been an estimated 416 million tweets, at the average rate of about 9,500 tweets per second.

About 0.7% of tweets are negative in tone, according to one study. (Other studies have found higher rates of negativity on Twitter, particularly when discussing subjects like politics. But I’m going to go with the lowest number I found, in part because it’s universal and we’re not just interested in political Twitter fights, and in part because we don’t need to consider a higher rate to settle this.)

That’s 2.9 million negative tweets in this first 12 hours. This particular Twitter fight had seven tweets (including Ricardo’s interjection but not Brian’s query), so for the sake of simplicity, let’s take seven as our average Twitter fight length and divide out for about 417,000 Twitter fights. Scale the following smaller if you prefer a different definition of the number of tweets per fight, though we’re really just making numbers up left and right here.

Let’s further assume the intelligence of those tweets follows a normal distribution, with tweets of average intelligence the most common and really smart and really dumb tweets of decreasing frequency. We’ll apply a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is peak stupidity, 50 is average intelligence and 100 is peak intelligence.

All sides have stipulated that these tweets are, in fact, dumb. So we’re limited to just one side of the normal distribution: this fight is somewhere between 0 and 50 on the intelligence scale.

What is in dispute is to what degree this fight is dumb. Is this the dumbest Twitter fight humanly possible (a 0)? I suspect we can all imagine dumber possible Twitter fights. But that’s not necessarily fatal to Patrick’s argument that this is the dumbest fight of the day — or even, in our sample, of the first half of the day.

Now, the exact stupidity level of this fight is so subjective that it’s impossible to know for sure. But we can speak probabilistically. We know the stupidity value, which we’ll call S, is somewhere in the range 0 <= S <= 50.

But most values of S are immaterial. If this conversation is a 45, then it’s clearly not the stupidest Twitter fight of the day. In fact, we only care about about the extreme low values.

With a population size of about 417,000 fights, our normal distribution can tell us how many Twitter fights we can expect for each stupidity score range:

Stupidity score Number of fights
0 – 5 1
5 – 10 12
10 – 15 84
15 – 20 466
20 – 25 2,025
25 – 30 6,894
30 – 35 18,362
35 – 40 38,281
40 – 45 62,468
45 – 50 79,798


For example, we can expect almost 80,000 fights between 45 and 50 — just slightly stupid fights. But there will be just 84 fights between 10 and 15, where the stupidity is becoming impressive.

Fortunately for Patrick, you can still be the dumbest Twitter fight in the day without being the dumbest Twitter fight possible (a score of 0). Unfortunately, you have to get pretty darn close. A score of 6 would put you among the two dumbest fights, and the “winner” likely has to achieve a score of 5 or less.

The odds of that happening are one in 294,319, an 0.00034 percent chance.


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Written by David Montgomery

July 7th, 2015 at 6:47 pm

Posted in Miscellany

Interesting words, part 6: Science fiction

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A continuing series. In a discussion with fellow novelist Kazuo Ishigiro, Neil Gaiman discusses the odd experience of being invited to China to participate in a science fiction convention:

They brought in some people from the west and I was one of them, and I was talking to a number of the older science-fiction writers in China, who told me about how science fiction was not just looked down on, but seen as suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy.

I took aside one of the Party organisers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy.

Personally I suspect this says more about China (or at least the Chinese Communist Party) than it does about science fiction, as much as I’m a fan of the genre. But maybe it’s both!

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Written by David Montgomery

June 5th, 2015 at 9:44 am

Posted in Quotes

The accidental republic

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In 1870, Napoléon III abdicated as Emperor of the Second French Empire. Parliamentary deputies from around the country met, first in Bordeaux and then in Versailles, to determine the next form of French government, and there was little reason to expect a republic.

History alone suggested authoritarian rule was most likely. Most of French history had been under kings. Even the tumultuous 78 years since King Louis XVI was deposed saw France governed by Bonaparte emperors for 29 years, by kings for 36 years and by republics for 15 years — most of those years in the last century, under the bloody Terror: republican dictatorships with an emphasis on “dictatorship.” The last French republic had been a brief chimera, an interregnum between monarchy and empire.

Recent history too saw the democratic crushed and discredited. Parisian workers and radicals had risen up in the Commune of Paris and were brutally crushed in the semaine sanglante or bloody week, in which 17,000 or more Communards were killed (10 times the number who fell to the guillotine in 1793)1 — and the radical leaders imprisoned or exiled.

The nascent republic’s “very legitimacy… was fading by the day, with hard-line monarchist representatives sniffing for any signs of weakness that might allow them to usurp power.”2

It’s no surprise that when new deputies were elected in 1871, about 400 of the 650 were “royalists of all varieties”3 and some of the rest Bonapartists. The new National Assembly promptly repealed the “exile law” that had barred members of the royalist dynasties from entering France; as French scholar René Rémond wrote later, “was this not the necessary preface to the restoration of the monarchy?”4

Somehow, amid the chaos of German invasion, civil war, social strife, religious disputes and economic turmoil, France ended up with a republic. And unlike the prior two republics, this one was born not of popular revolution but of elite parliamentary debate that seemed from the state to favor the monarchy. How did this happen?

The simple answer is that the royalists were divided while the republicans were united. Despite their apparent strength, the monarchist majority disagreed on one vital point: who should be crowned king.

Accidental Republic sidebarOne faction, the legitimists, made homage to the Bourbons, the “legitimate” kings of France, the dynasty overthrown in the 1789 and 1830 revolutions. The Bourbon heir, the Comte de Chambord, lived in exile in in Austria and made it clear he was prepared to come home. He also lacked children, normally a drawback for a dynasty but in this case a potential strength, given the divisions among monarchists.

The other royalist faction, the Orléanists, preferred the rival House of Orléans, descended from King Louis XIV’s younger brother. The Orléanist King Louis Philippe had ruled France in the “July Monarchy” from 1830 to 1848; his grandson Philippe, the Comte de Paris, lived in England (after fighting in the American Civil War on George McClellan’s staff!) and also had a good claim. The Orléanist kings and their supporters were more liberal and bourgeois than the Bourbons; where the Legitimists believed in the intrinsic value of monarchy, the Orléanists saw it more instrumentally as a form of government better suited to protecting order and property than democracy was.

If the two royalist factions could agree on a king, they had the votes to restore the monarchy. And, in fact, the two sides did manage to agree: in a royalist “fusion,” Legitimists and Orléanists agreed that the childless Chambord would become king, and would in turn declare Philippe his heir.

“What their plan did not consider was the obduracy of Chambord,” writes historian Frederick Brown. The Bourbon pretender refused to compromise on many key policies, but perhaps the last straw was a highly symbolic line in the sand: he would only accept the throne if France abandoned the tricolore flag, flown during the Revolution, Napoleon I’s Empire and all governments since 1830, in favor of the white fleur-de-lis of the old regime. This was too much for many royalists: “While eighty die-hard legitimists stood firm behind Chambord, a majority of conservative deputies dissociated themselves from his manifesto.”5

The Orléanists dominated the right, but without the 100-odd Legitimists they didn’t have the majority needed to restore the monarchy. The Legitimists didn’t have the votes to do anything by themselves, but refused to disobey their rightful king and elect another claimant. So the rightist “fusion” split apart. The Orléanists decided to stick with a republic for the time being, “finding revolution and anachronism almost equally objectionable.”6

The monarchist dream wasn’t dead yet: deputies elected a republican president but implied “that France might yet become a monarchy” with references to the country’s “provisional institutions” and yet-to-be-established “definitive institutions.”7

If they couldn’t have a king, they settled for the next best thing: a monarchical president, a 65-year-old general who “assumed, not unhappily, that he was warming the seat for someone else.”8

But the royalists’ moment had passed. As a new constitution was being drafted, right-wing delegates united to vote down every reference to a “republic” — until one reference passed by a single vote, after which “with every subsequent item the majority grew larger.”9

The Legitimists in turn blamed the Orléanist leader, the Duc Du Broglie, for the collapse; “from then on they regularly attacked their former ally, doing damage by any means.”10 In 1874, Légitimists joined with the republicans to bring down an Orléanist government. The next year, when choosing 75 senators-for-life provided for under the constitution, “rather than see men of the Right-Center elected, a group of Legitimists preferred, from resentment and at the risk of compromising the future, to reach an understanding with the Left and elect 57 republicans, leaving only eight seats for the Right-Center.”11

Even as the royalist majority frittered away its chance, the republicans made sure they didn’t blow it — as they had in 1848, in the brief Second Republic. At that time, both liberals and leftists wanted a republican government, and their alliance was able to topple the monarchy. But the radicals continued pressing for more and more societal change — which ended up provoking a backlash from the middle class and peasantry in favor of conservative forces. As historian Mike Rapport writes, “the radicals’ hot-heated behavior” stirred “anxieties over disorder,” which led some supporters of the republic to reconsider. “The political middle ground was crumbling beneath the feet of those republicans who wanted peaceful social reform: compromise between ‘order’ and the ‘social republic’ was becoming dangerously elusive.”12 Moderates joined with conservatives to support a military suppression of a worker uprising, and the volunteers included not just well-to-do bourgeois but “shopkeepers and workers who believed that they were defending their neighborhoods from ‘anarchy’… All those in the French population who felt that they had something to lose were alarmed at the prospect of social disintegration.”13

In contrast, in the 1870s, the French republican movement held together. Leftists under Leon Gambetta set aside their “serious misgivings” and agreed to bide their time under a conservative republic because “government improvised without a constitution was serving those who argued the need for another Napoleon to restore order.”14 Gambetta formed an alliance with Adolphe Thiers — the conservative republican who crushed the Commune of Paris — “that made (Gambetta’s) agenda for social change less ominous to conservatives and (Thiers’) moderation less unpalatable to social reformers.”15

At the 1876 elections Republicans carried 363 seats against only 180 conservatives — and almost half of them were Bonapartists.16 By 1879, republicans controlled the presidency and assembly. Four years later, Chambord died, “and monarchy with him,” Rémond wrote.17 The Third Republic would endure for 70 years, the longest-lasting system of government in French history since the ancien régime — and the same length of time France has preserved republican government since World War II.

Had the monarchists been able to convert their dominance into victory in the 1870s, France would likely have eventually become democratic — the first and second world wars saw the rest of Europe’s monarchies fall or become constitutional. But France’s republican leadership in the late 19th century championed massive changes including secularization, centralization, national public education and suppression of regional languages,18 some or all of which would have been difficult under a different constitutional system. That’s not bad for a government that wasn’t supposed to last more than a few months.

  1. Alex Butterworth, The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 51.
  2. Butterworth, The World That Never Was, 36
  3. René Rémond, The Right Wing in France: From 1815 to De Gaulle, trans. James M. Laux (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), 169.
  4. Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 172.
  5. Frederick Brown, For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 42.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Brown 42-43
  8. Brown, For the Soul of France, 44.
  9. Brown, For the Soul of France, 47
  10. Brown, For the Soul of France, 46
  11. Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 200-201
  12. Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 196.
  13. Rapport, 1848, 210-211.
  14. Brown, For the Soul of France, 47-48
  15. Brown, For the Soul of France, 52
  16. Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 201
  17. Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 203
  18. Graham Robb, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (New York: Norton, 2007), 324-330.
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Written by David Montgomery

March 25th, 2015 at 2:14 pm

Posted in History

My next step

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Six years ago, after graduating from college, I wanted to get into journalism, and I didn’t particularly care where. I fired off applications around the country — upstate New York, the Louisiana bayou, Washington D.C., California and everywhere in between.

The first place that gave me an offer — about a month after graduating, and shortly after my parents had a conversation about the possibility of rent payments — was a tiny five-day-per-week newspaper in the remote town of Pierre, South Dakota. The Capital Journal offered the same opportunities many of the other jobs I was applying to: getting in at the ground floor at a daily newspaper where I’d do a little bit of everything. But it had the added bonus of being in a state capital, and so involved my favorite type of reporting: political journalism.

After nearly missing out on the job because an email got caught in my spam folder, I accepted, bought a car, loaded it full of my scant possessions and drove it to Pierre. It was the first time I had ever visited the city, and only the third time in my life I had entered the state of South Dakota.

I don’t remember how long I intended to stay in South Dakota on that day I moved to Pierre, but even when I’ve looked elsewhere, the best option always ended up being to stay in the Mount Rushmore state.

So after two-plus years in Pierre, I moved to the Rapid City Journal, and from part-time political reporting to being the main political reporter. Just under two years later, I moved across the state to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, as the full-time political reporter for the largest paper in the state. Each move has been a step up — a bigger city, a bigger audience and more chances to immerse myself in South Dakota’s fascinating politics. Despite being a complete neophyte when arriving back in June 2008, I’ve loved my time here and have grown tremendously as both a journalist and a person. But that time is now at an end.

It’s with both excitement and sadness that I can announce I’ve accepted a job as a political reporter at the Pioneer Press newspaper in Saint Paul, Minn.

This is a step up for me — a bigger city and a bigger audience, just like my past moves. But it also takes me back to those initial days of 2008: I’m moving to a brand new state, learning a new political climate and a new set of sources. Moreover, I know I’ll be stepping into some huge shoes: the spot I’m taking is being vacated by Bill Salisbury, a 37-year veteran of the Pioneer Press and the dean of the Minnesota Capitol press corps, who is retiring on Jan. 5.

Though it’ll be tough, I’m looking forward to the challenge and the competition in the bigger Twin Cities media market. (I’ll also enjoy covering a legislature in the city where I live, instead of having to spend months in a motel room every winter.)

It’s going to be a fast transition. My last day at the Argus Leader will be Friday, Dec. 19, and I’ll start at the Pioneer Press a few days later on Monday Dec. 22. I’ll be securing housing and moving my home while simultaneously diving straight in to Minnesota’s upcoming legislative session, which starts just a month from now. I can’t wait to get right to work, learn the ropes and put out the best, most innovative journalism I can.

I’m sorry to be moving on but am definitely richer for my time here in South Dakota. Thanks for six great years!

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Written by David Montgomery

December 5th, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Posted in Announcements


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In less serious news, we turn to the august pages of Skymall:



It’s called the “Seabreacher,” and the ad calls it “the latest must-have toy for people who play hard — especially on the water.” It supposedly can reach 55 mph on the water and 25 mph under water, with an “acrylic canopy and underwater view ports” to give “a near 360-degree view.” And it’s only $85,000! “Discounts do not apply.”

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Written by David Montgomery

October 15th, 2014 at 2:54 pm

Posted in Miscellany