Category: History

Jorah Mormont, John Brown, and the Bay of Pigs

Jorah Mormont, John Brown, and the Bay of Pigs


Advising Daenerys Targaryen on the feasibility of a Targaryen restoration, Jorah Mormont observed:

“The smallfolk pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the great lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.”

A cynical assessment, and like most cynical statements, largely because of its mordant bite, it’s far too readily credited than it should be. Are the poor, the small, the uneducated, the toilers on farms, and in factories and workshops so apathetic about the fate of their own nation? There are many episodes that support Ser Jorah in his contention.

James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth was a natural (illegitimate) son of Charles II, but on the death of his father, the crown had passed to his uncle James II. Monmouth was a more appealing and certainly a more dashing figure than his uncle. What is more, James’ religion was highly suspect and many feared that in his heart he was a Catholic. An invasion was planned and launched from Holland, and Monmouth landed in South West England where he was extremely popular. A proclamation against James was read, the pretender’s banners were unfurled, and men did flock to these banners. However, in numbers, in armaments, and in training, these men were far inferior to the professional royal armies that came against them. The rebels marched and countermarched; the royal armies pursued and harried them. The rebels were trapped and brought to battle, and at Sedgemoor they were defeated. Monmouth deserted his supporters and fled the field to be himself captured soon after. In spite of his royal blood and his pleas for mercy, he was executed and many of his hapless supporters went to the gallows.

Fidel Castro had overthrown Fulgencio Batista and established his own government on the island of Cuba, but the American government had become convinced that his regime was likely communist in its tendencies and sympathies and decidedly unfriendly to the United States. The CIA planned an operation to topple the regime using Cuban anti-communist exiles to land on the island and lead a revolt against the government. This invasion force was supported by the US Air Force and Navy but their direct involvement was to be limited, and it was hoped that American role in the operation might go unnoticed. The Cuban rebels were landed at the Bay of Pigs, but their forces were so tiny that they were quickly overwhelmed. Kennedy didn’t dare commit the full might of the American military, and the operation could succeed only with a general uprising of the Cuban people. The Cubans didn’t rise against Castro and the invasion turned into a dismal, embarrassing, and damaging failure.

An abolitionist named John Brown and a small group attacked and captured the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. So far successful, Brown and his men had a large store of rifles and pikes at their disposal. They’d planned to use these weapons to arm slaves from the surrounding plantations and ignite a slave revolt throughout the entire South. He expected a host of slaves to come streaming down from the hills, fugitives needing only the arms he could provide to be made into an army of liberation. They never came. The call went unanswered because it went unheard. Isolated in their cabins on plantations that covered wide areas, almost all the slaves around Harper’s Ferry never learned that the day of Jubilee may be on hand. Had they heard that they had a chance to rise and fight for their freedom, would they have been bold enough to take that chance, no matter how dreadful the penalties for defeat and how daunting the odds against them? There is no way to know but the outcome was much the same as that of Monmouth’s Rebellion. Brown’s raid attracted no support and he and his men were surrounded, and those not killed in the fighting were captured and hung.

There are many examples of landings and invasions meant to fire revolts and topple thrones that failed in a similar manner and these three have been selected as representative because they are so widely separated in time, place and circumstance. These all point to one undeniable truth, if you want to be sure of an invasion, you must bring forces sufficient to overcome any opposition. If the smallfolk, hating the present regime or loyal to the cause of the invaders, choose to join the rebellion, all the better. Their aid will make the invasion easier and less costly, but they are to be merely an ancillary force and their involvement may be helpful but it must not be needed. Any undertaking that can succeed only with their support is almost surely doomed.

From this it seems evident that the smallfolk are as heedless, apathetic, and lethargic as Jorah Mormont supposed. They are not. Invasions that count upon their support fail, but those that count on their acquiescence also fail. During the Napoleonic Wars, Spain was torn between the king, the crown prince, and a scheming prime minister. Frustrated that Spain wasn’t upholding his Continental System and needing a better ruler for what had become an ineffectual and undependable ally, Napoleon summoned father and son to Bayonne for a conference. Before long disgusted by both, and convinced they were too stupid and vicious to be of any use, he replaced them. Napoleon had acquired a habit of making kings of his brothers and he appointed one them, Joseph, to reign in their stead. Charles IV had been a bad king and Napoleon was sure that the indifferent and illiterate Spanish peasantry would tamely submit to the replacement. While Charles had been a bad king, he’d been their bad king and Napoleon’s interference and the insult to their national sovereignty touched off a revolt in Madrid. The uprising was suppressed and the French exacted reprisals brutal enough to prevent any further resistance.

The executions, however, didn’t have the intended effect, and the Grand Armee was pulled into a ghastly guerilla that dragged on and on, slowly sapping its strength. This irregular warfare set the pattern for the guerillas that came after. Frenchmen who fell out of the column of march, who strayed from their comrades, who went off in foraging parties too small to defend themselves, were taken, tortured, and killed in the most gruesome and painful manner human ingenuity can devise. The French answered these barbarities with atrocities of their own. Civilians were rounded up and put up against the wall to be shot dozens of Spaniards dying for every Frenchmen. Women were raped, towns burned and the inhabitants butchered. The Spanish took every punishment, no matter how grievous, as a provocation, and they fought more bitterly and savagely the more they suffered.

The smallfolk are unpredictable. If a great lord counts on them being sluggish, craven, and harmless, they will be peevish, irascible, and deadly. If the scion of a beloved former dynasty or a more deserving and attractive claimant to the throne will count on their affection and loyalty, they will prove too wise to follow him on his mad escapades but may come by as spectators to his beheading. Their motives are inscrutable and their responses are imponderable and that makes them as dangerous as Littlefinger in all his machinations. If the great lords understood the smallfolk they could manage them. The smallfolk may be taxed, tithed, and levied into forced labor but they can’t be predicted. The high and mighty must tread lightly because they can never know if they will encounter the sheep or the viper.

Empires, Cantons, and Refractory Whiskey Distillers

Empires, Cantons, and Refractory Whiskey Distillers


The Federalist Papers begin with the remark that the subsisting Articles of Confederation had shown themselves to be unsatisfactory. Hamilton alludes to an unequivocal experience and goes on to condemn the present constitution. The inadequacy isn’t put forth as an axiom but it is tendered as an obvious premise. Next, he expatiates on the importance of the deliberations underway and in this he was perfectly correct:

It has been frequently remarked, that it has been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.

By good government established by reflection and choice he clearly means a republican government, and the alternative, government by accident and force can be any form of government that isn’t a republic, but more particularly a hereditary monarchy. Reflection and choice should not be taken to mean that a republic can derive its constitution or its policies from pure reason alone. Politics is not deducible from the laws of logic by themselves. Constitutions will be established and decisions made in a certain time and place.

Is the nation agricultural, mercantile, or industrial? Is one tongue spoken by nearly all or are there many different languages? Is the country broken up into spheres by great swamps, bays, lakes, mountain ranges, or is it relatively contiguous? Are nearly all the people of one faith, or is the nation riven into differing and sometimes contending religions? The unique character of the Swiss constitution is perfectly adapted for a country broken into cantons by the Alps and speaking several different tongues. A small, flat country where nearly all speak the same language, like the Netherlands, may not need to be so loosely confederated. And although Hamilton and the other founders were intent on a separation of church and state, even the mild mentions they made to God might be dangerous in a nation where even a benign remark can be the occasion for a civil war of religion.

And not only in the setting down of the form of government but in the quotidian task of governing itself, chance and situation will play their part. It is undeniable that in a hereditary monarchy operating by primogeniture, it is often the virtues, vices, and capacities of a mere boy that will decide whether the realm has a good king or a bad king. In the selection of a ruler, a republic will have a far wider field of choice, but that does’t ensure that the choice will be a good one. There may be a great many middling men on offer with a few bad ones sprinkled among them, and the best that can be hoped for is that a fool or charlatan doesn’t get himself elected. A republic is just as susceptible to floods, earthquakes, droughts, and pandemics as a monarchy, and in a state where the people have not only a clamant but a decisive voice, these tragedies can inflame feelings and lead to blunders that a sovereign, left alone to let his passions abate and ponder at his leisure, might well avoid.

In both monarchies and republics, decisions are made by deciding among alternatives that are set before us by forces beyond our control. Among these alternatives, we may choose well or poorly, but the options themselves arise from the course of events not our chain or reasoning. As to force, every course adopted, no matter how kindly meant or how generally beneficial, will help some and harm others. A good policy will help more than it harms. And while any measure will the welfare or interests of some, a good measure may cost certain citizens but not impoverish them, it may inconvenience some but it shouldn’t ruin them. Yet no one likes to lose money or be caused trouble, and every measure decided upon by the government, whether a legislature, a king, or an emperor, must be imposed by force. In a republic, the force may be applied more gently, softened with condolence, and lubricated with sound explanations and promises of future considerations, yet the force must be applied all the same. Hamilton himself knew this well. In the very beginnings of the United States, he had to head out west to deal with whiskey distillers who refused to pay their taxes. Yet despite these quibbles and caveats, a democratic government may not be categorically different from other forms of government but it will be different.

Having touched on the importance of the issues at hand, Hamilton moved on to the strong feelings that these momentous issues were certain to evoke. He was expecting that the debate was going to be passionate and even vehement, and this was natural and probably laudable. He was also expecting that the debate was going to be often angry and venomous, and he was anxious to forestall such animosities. Our reasoning frequently leads us astray, and while our opponents may be pushing for something we are sure is wrong or harmful, they may be honestly mistaken and working from the noblest of intentions. Conversely, those who are aligned with us on what we take to be the right side of the question may be actuated not by a sincere conviction that this is for the best, but rather by enmity, avarice, envy, or some other base passion.

And if we must allow that our opponents may be mistaken, we ourselves are not infallible, and we must entertain the possibility that we ourselves have erred. In concluding his attempts to temper the coming argument and calm the approaching storm, Hamiloton mentions the violent and intolerant spirit that often animates political parties. He speaks of making proselytes by fire and sword and curing heresies by persecution. The French Revolution was not far off but it had not yet arrived, and these warnings carry notes of prophecy.

Having urged good sense and understanding, Hamilton proposes to heed his own advice and offer the public a series of papers on the subject of the proposed constitution. In cool and reasoned argument, he will point out the utility of the Union, the insufficiency of the present Confederation, the necessity of an energetic government, the conformity of the proposed Constitution with the true principles of republican government, the analogy of the proposed federal with existing state constitutions, and finally the additional security the Constitution will afford.

The subsequent papers will each treat of a specific questions, while this first paper is much more general, serving as an appeal to civility in debate and to reason as the ultimate arbiter of the tremendous issues under consideration. This prologue was meant to embody the very principles it exhorts. Hamilton is hoping for fervor without the taint of malice, earnest argument without recrimination.

Dreadnoughts and Death Stars

Dreadnoughts and Death Stars


When HMS Dreadnought slid off the dock and slipped into Portsmouth Harbor, she was the mightiest and most terrifying weapon mankind had ever created. Admiral Fisher had pushed for the design and construction of a battleship capable of sailing at twenty one knots and armed exclusively with heavy twelve inch guns. This technological terror was intended to make it clear to the world that British supremacy at sea was to be perpetual and unchallenged. The navies of friend, ally, and foe were to look upon her huge guns, gigantic size, and tremendous cost, despair, and relinquish control of the oceans to Great Britain.

The idea for this huge new battleship had been born at the naval review for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Inventor and industrialist Charles Algernon Parsons had invented the steam turbine and to demonstrate its superiority to every other form of propulsion he sent the Turbinia, a ship powered by steam turbines, to crash the greatest massing of sea power the world had ever seen. In celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign, the combined might of the Royal Navy was brought together before the eyes of princes, lords, journalists, and foreign dignitaries. The Admiralty meant to awe them all with the stunning spectacle of the planet’s greatest fleet. The Turbinia appeared uninvited and unwanted, racing between, around, and in front of the battleships. As she flew by, she was seen by all the watching luminaries to be far swifter than the proudest vessels of the Royal Navy. A picket boat was sent out to catch her but she easily danced away. To humiliate the admirals in front of the Prince of Wales was a dangerous expedient, but while they may have wanted to throttle Parsons it was obvious that existing ships couldn’t contend with one powered by steam turbines, and they had no alternative but to take his point.

The Dreadnought was designed to be powered by the new engines and she was laid down in thirteen months, faster than any battleship before. Yet as impressive as this feat was, it turned out to be an Ozymandian effort. Her speed and long range allowed her to keep her distance from any enemy ship and tear it apart without taking so much as a scratch and her launching made every other battleship afloat obsolete.  But the other navies of the world didn’t throw up their hands, give up, and concede the seas to Great Britain as the Admiralty had hoped.   Instead they rushed to build and launch their own Dreadnoughts. The introduction of Great Britain’s awesome new weapon touched off an arms race and the governments and navies of the world cast their wealth into the building of Dreadnoughts. Rather than awing other nations into meek submission, the new ships heightened tensions between the great powers. Feeling themselves compelled to match and then to outdo the British leviathan, they all had to give up on the battleships they already possessed and come up with the money to construct brand new and catastrophically expensive ships. Rather than peace and the supremacy of the Royal Navy, exorbitance and belligerence followed in the Dreadnought’s wake.

This outcome should hardly be surprising since every weapon introduced down through the ages has been quickly copied and adopted. Iron, stirrups, chariots, cannon, the Monitor and the Merrimack, and every other technological advance in killing have spread from nation to nation, from army to army. The Philistines managed to keep iron out of the hands of their enemies but such control has always proved to be difficult. The Admiralty had gambled that the ruinous cost of building such a monster might deter the other navies of the world, but in the choice between guns and butter, even the poorest of nations will arm themselves no matter what the consequences. North Korea has demonstrated that even a poor country and a minor power can acquire the most powerful and terrifying weaponry if they are ruthless enough to condemn their own citizens to indigence, famine, and pestilence.

A gigantic floating weapon that will fill any opponent with terror and allow a government to impose its will appears in the movie Star Wars. The Empire built the Death Star to be the ultimate weapon but no weapon is ever really ultimate. The gargantuan battles station turned out to be vulnerable to small fighters and was destroyed by X Wings at the Battle of Yavin. During the Second World War, the mightiest ship in the Royal Navy, HMS Prince of Wales, was sunk in much the same fashion by Japanese torpedo bombers.

Sumptuary Laws and Civic Virtue

Sumptuary Laws and Civic Virtue




In his Utopia, Thomas More wrote that in his perfect society, gold and silver were to be put to ignoble uses like chamber pots so that these precious would be despised by all citizens. Montaigne advocates similar measures for engendering a contempt for luxuries. A sympathy for sumptuary laws runs throughout the Renaissance and beyond. Not all writers believed that these laws could ever work but considered the intended effects salutary. From their reading of Plato, Livy, Plutarch and other authors, and their own understanding of ancient history, Machiavelli, Gibbon, and many more believed luxury and extravagance were the undoing of republics and empires alike.


The laws of Lycurgus were the most thorough and rigorous of all codes in curbing luxury. The Spartans used money minted of iron, on the rare occasions they handled money at all. The Spartans wore the simplest clothes, ate the coarsest food, and lived lives of hardship and privation, in order to make themselves peerless warriors. They were great fighters and Plato, Xenophon, and many more Athenian authors credited this abstemious lifestyle for their prowess on the battlefield.


Later writers like Livy and Plutarch made a natural comparison between the early Romans and the Spartans. Those Romans from the early days of the Republic, Cincinnatus, the Horatii, and Camillus, lead lives of rude simplicity, scratching out their daily bread from the soil, strengthened by hard manual labor and inured against every privation. These sturdy forefathers conquered an empire, and this accession of wealth corrupted their descendants. The Romans became gluttonous, lazy, effeminate in manner, accustomed to lives of ease and pleasure that rendered them unfit for the legions. The fall of Rome is a story of moral degeneracy.


Although remembered as the supreme exponent of unscrupulous measures, Machiavelli was a very moral author and he thought any republic corrupted in its manners incapable of surviving. What exactly is corruption. Everything Lycurgus and Cato the Elder would despise and denounce: riding in litters, wearing silk, eating off gold plate, sleeping in soft beds. Some like Gibbon and Montesquieu have a peculiar fixation with climate. Throughout his history, Gibbon contrasts the legions hardened by the winters of northern provinces like Dacia and Britannia with those legions enervated by their heat and torpor of Syria and Egypt. Against all counterexamples, he considers shivering somehow a fortifying exercise and insists that balmy climes are fatal to martial vigor. This bias persists into modern times and Toynbee deems the town of Capua particularly emasculating.


Augustus was so alarmed by the moral decay of the Roman state that he became one of the most prolific legislators of sumptuary laws. Over the next centuries, the legions, once manned by the citizen farmers of the nearby countryside, came to depend on contingents of German mercenaries and his fears seem to be well founded. The lecheries and debaucheries of Tiberius, Nero, and Caligula, so sensationally depicted by Suetonius provide an antipode to the heroes of Livy. We picture Cincinnatus at his plow alongside his degenerate descendants writhing in their orgies or hunched over their vomitorium. Such Mediterranean sybarites can never stand up to the burly giants sweeping down from the north.


Discomfort and privation do not make good soldiers. Men accustomed to riding horses (when it was still a skill useful in war), hunting, rifles, and trained to arms since childhood will at first be better fighters than their counterparts who may be equally robust and strong in body but lack this early training. They will keep this ascendancy for some while, but their adversaries will be seasoned by training and experience and soon match if not surpass them. The Southerners were convinced that one man in butternut was worth ten in blue but in the end the factory workers of the North beat the Southern cavaliers facing them. As Sam Houston had predicted, the descendants of the heroes of Lexington and Bunker Hill were found the equals with the descendants of the heroes of Cowpens and Yorktown. The Thebans learned the art of the phalanx from the Spartans and at Leuctra although outnumbered they defeated them.


Men don’t fight well because they’re poor, or hungry, or ill-clad. They fight because they believe they have a reason to fight. They fight because they think their actions matter. Citizens believe that the state is an enterprise in which they have a share. They must be sure that they have a voice in the decisions taken and a stake in the outcome of those decisions. With this assurance they can accomplish anything, without it they’re good for nothing. The Romans were no longer willing to serve under the eagles because they didn’t believe they had a voice or a stake and they were right. The Empire was the rule of one man, whether benevolent and despotic. There were many emperors over the next centuries, so wide in their extraction, so various in their circumstance and character, that any man might aspire to become emperor. If a gigantic Thracian peasant like Maximin, or a Syrian zealot like Elagabalus might rise to become emperor, the way seems clear for anybody bold or lucky enough to attempt that dangerous climb. Yet for the ordinary citizen to take a hand in the management of the state was quite impossible.


The Roman Empire held some of the fairest portions of the earth, and this wide and fertile expanse yielded much wealth that was channeled into the recruitment and maintaining of the legions. Yet while the citizens of the Roman Empire enjoyed its benefits, they took no part in its direction. The ordinary people kept their heads down and endured whichever adventurer had risen to the purple. In the general prosperity, very few young men were compelled by poverty to enlist in the legions. There were easier and safer ways to make a living. The natives of Italy no longer aspired to become centurions, and so the empire turned to the barbarian tribesmen, trained to arms since childhood and already grouped into their warrior bands.


The Russian peasants conscripted into the armies of the Czar in the First World War were no match for the Germans. The Germans were raised in comfort and plenty in comparison to their Russian foes, and they were the recipients of a public education which furnished them with the skills to fight a modern war and inculcated the nobility of service to the state. Growing up, the Germans had been better nourished, better educated, and more thoroughly indoctrinated. The Germans had imbibed a fervid and bellicose nationalism from the cradle, and the illiterate, confused, often unhealthy Russian serfs facing them stood little chance. The Battle of Tannenberg showed the immense might of a modern, industrial state. Schoolboys taught reading, arithmetic, and love for the Kaiser and the Fatherland throughout childhood, made terrible soldiers once grown to manhood.


It is upbringing, education, and above all, unity of purpose that makes for a citizen soldier. The Spartan fought for his companions in the mess, the Goths for a chieftain preeminent for his leadership and courage, the private in the Army of the Potomac for the union, the Roman legionary for the senate and people of Rome, and the German private in the Imperial Army for kaiser and fatherland. They fought alongside comrades and for a country or a cause that will stand and fall upon the outcome of their arms. If they become estranged from their leaders, if they consider themselves inhabitants only and not citizens, that courage will vanish.