RCH: The battle that shaped Texas for one hundred years

That’s the topic of my latest at RealClearHistory. (Remember, I have a Tuesday column and a weekend column over there.) Here’s an excerpt:

In the mid 16th century, then, in what is now Texas and Oklahoma, world powers and regional polities bobbed and weaved with each other in an intricate, unpredictable game of geopolitics to settle who gain hegemony over a region destined to be important for transcontinental trade for centuries to come. The defeat forced Spain to give up its designs for the region entirely, and France was never interested in the region being anything other than a resource-rich frontier for its American port cities in New Orleans and Quebec.

The defeat also caused a minor rift between Tlaxcala and Spain, which was a big deal at the time because without Tlaxcala, Spain would have never been able to conquer the Aztec Empire as thoroughly as it did.

Please, read the rest. Texas ain’t no joke…

Dictators who gave up power?

That’s the topic of my weekend column over at RealClearHistory, thanks to an extended email with Andrei. Here’s an excerpt:

10. King Juan Carlos I. Juan Carlos should be a household name in the West. The monarch of Spain upon dictator Francisco Franco’s death, Juan Carlos was expected to continue Franco’s legacy of authoritarian rule. After all, he received a military education in Spain under the Franco regime and had a clear claim to the throne (although the throne itself was a complicated legal matter). Furthermore, Juan Carlos was an active member of Franco’s staff, even stepping in to fill Franco’s void when the fascist began to fall ill due to old age. When Franco died, Juan Carlos began to dismantle the Franco regime and helped usher a smooth transition to democratic rule.

Please, read the rest.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

My latest over at RealClearHistory went up on Tuesday. The schedule for my work over there goes as follows: I’ve got a regular Friday column and a Tuesday blog post, so be on the lookout! Here’s an excerpt:

The volunteers were to be used as cannon fodder for the Republicans, which explains the high casualty rate, but it was the disorganized front put on by the democratically-elected Republican government that is to blame for the high casualty rates, rather than some sort of prejudice or malice on the part of the Spanish Left. The volunteers almost all came from non-military backgrounds, too, as most were starry-eyed urban idealists who believed they were fighting injustice. After a meager 30 days of training, the Lincoln Battalion was marched to the front lines to fight a bunch of battle-hardened troops that mostly hailed from Spain’s colonies, where military governance was practiced and honed to near perfection.

Read the rest. This was a fun one to write. I initially wanted to do something about the Spanish Civil War and international meddling (Madrid fell to Franco on March 29), before tying it in to the events in Syria.

My editor gently reminded me that the blog posts should be about American history, so I threw in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. And check out my RCH colleague’s post on the birth and rise of the Republican Party.

Spanish GDP since 1850

Among the great economic historians is Leandro Prados de la Escosura. Why? Because, before venturing in massively complex explanations to explain academic puzzles, he tries to make sure the data is actually geared towards actually testing the theory. That attracts my respect (probably because it’s what I do as well which implies a confirmation bias on my part). Its also why I feel that I must share his most recent work which is basically a recalculation of the GDP of Spain.

The most important I see from his work is that the recomputation portrays Spain as a less poor place than we have been led to believe – throughout the era. To show how much, I recomputed the Maddison data for Spain and compared it with incomes for the United Kingdom and compared it Leandro’s estimates for Spain relative to those for Britain (the two methods are very similar thus they seem like mirrors at different levels). The figure below emerges (on a log scale for the ratio in percentage points). As one can see, Spain is much closer to Britain than we are led to believe throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century. Moreover, with Leandro’s corrections, Spain convergence towards Britain from the end of the Civil War to today is very impressive.


The only depressing thing I see from Leandro’s work is that Spain’s productivity (GDP / hours worked) seems to have stagnated since the mid-1980s.


Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XV, From Dutch Model to German Kings

Continuing from the last post, the story of the temporary Anglo-Dutch fusion and then moving onto the German kings of Britain.The invasion of late October was not strongly resisted, James fled London and then England, giving Parliament the pretext to declare that James had abdicated. His son was ignored with the falsehood pretext that he was not the son of James and his wife, but a baby smuggled into the royal chambers. All this evasion and pretence should not be allowed, in Burkean fashion, to conceal the reality that Parliament had asserted itself as the sovereign power in the country, and accordingly that the monarch reigned at its pleasure, which could be withdrawn. This was not a restoration but a very radical innovation.

On the conservative side, it was designed to maintain a religious settlement in which only members of the state church were full citizens, removing rights James had given to Catholics and also Protestant Dissenters. The immediate impact then was a major loss of religious freedom, though partly based on fear that ‘tolerance’ was a tactic only for James on the road to state enforcement of Catholicism. We will never know the truth of that.

William’s Dutch invasion did not inspire much of a war as James II’ authority collapsed quickly, but further violence was to come in Ireland until 1691 featuring sieges and major battles, with the French helping the Catholic Irish against the Dutch prince turned English monarch. There was war in Scotland until 1692, featuring one of the infamous events of Scottish history, the Glencoe Massacres of Scottish Jacobites (supporters of James). The massacre was partly the result of clan rivalry, but was certainly also the consequence of state policies.

The Dutch connection disappeared with William’s death, as he had no children and the throne passed to Mary’s sister Anne, ignoring of course the claims of ‘James III’, the exiled son of James II. However, the impact of the Dutch connection was not just in the person of William. His reign as William III (1688 to 1702) coincides with the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694, which took place in the context of Dutch investments in London and a strong Dutch influence as a model of Protestantism, science, crafts, public finances, naval and merchant fleets, trade and colonialism which preceded 1688, including the exile of the liberal political philosopher John Locke in the Netherlands from 1683 to 1688, and was intensified by the Dutch invasion/Glorious Revolution.

The Dutch Republic had shown how to fight wars through a reliable, credible form of public debt which Britain was able to use in eighteenth century wars. Generally, the temporary relationship between the two states, which was somewhere between mere alliance and full fusion, was important in enabling Britain to become the leading eighteenth century power in Europe for all the things associated with the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.

The temporary semi-fusion of course had a drastic impact on British foreign and defence policy, which was now heavily oriented towards Dutch aims in northwestern Europe, and even the whole of Europe. Britain was heavily engaged in European politics, including wars, particularly the War of Spanish Succession (1701 to 1714), which led to Britain’s still current acquisition of Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain and included one of the most famous victories of British military history, Blenheim, under on the most famous British generals, John Churchill (ancestor of Winston Churchill), Duke of Marlborough on German territory. The main aim of British participation was to prevent French domination of Europe, which was threatened by a French claim to the Spanish throne, and the possibility of over generous compensation to France if it gave up Spain, with regard to Spanish colonies and the parts of Italy dominated by Spain.

Moving back briefly to the period before James II, his brother Charles II, had a secret treaty with Louis XIV of France which meant that state policy was covertly guided by the French who were subsiding Charles. So the temporary semi-fusion with the Dutch Republic was itself nothing new in terms of British state policy coming under the influence of a European power, it was simply a more open form of it. Looking forward, William was succeed by Mary’s sister Anne.

Parliament then legislated for a Protestant only succession, which went to the Elector Prince of Brunswick-Lüneburg, generally known as the Elector of Hanover. This family supplied British monarchs from 1714 to 1837. The legislation of Queen Anne’s time precluded military commitments to Hanover, but inevitably in practice the defence of Hanover and the protection of Hanover’s interests in Germany were a major consideration of state during that period. The first two Hanoverian monarchs were more German than English, though the third of the Hanoverian Georges, George III established himself as a largely popular archetype of supposed British character.

Next post: Britain in relation to some European nations

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XIII, Revolution and the Dutch Model in the mid 17th Century

The last post went up to the reign of James I in the early seventeenth century known as Jacobean England/Britain, because Jacobus is the Latin form of James. James I was also James VI of Scotland, unifying the two crowns in his person. He wished to created a unified British state, but this was not achieved until the early eighteenth century and Scotland always remained a distinct nation within Britain, de jure through different laws and state institutions, de facto through a distinct culture, or cultures, and a partly separate economy.

Sovereigntists and Eurosceptics might find the reign of James I to be an amenable part of history, with some qualifications. James I was married to a Danish princess and his son-in-law was a German prince at the centre of the opening phase of the Thirty Years War, a German and central European conflict which drew in the major European powers. James nevertheless kept British involvement very limited, though that would undermine any idea of Britain as distinct and exceptional as a champion of Protestantism in Europe. James could have played that role but preferred not too and was happy to try to ally with the major Catholic power, at least at the beginning of the Thirty Years War, Spain, though was also willing to give some support to French Protestants who had communities to some degree autonomous from the French state, which was a more generous attitude to religious ‘heresy’ than was shown in Britain.

Enthusiasts for the supposedly special and exceptional history of the English then British parliament will not find comfort in his notorious and eloquent belief in absolutism and divine right of kings, though James was sufficiently pragmatic and politically talented to realise that he could not avoid working with parliament in practice, at least in matters of new legislation and raising taxes. It can be said that his era is one in which Britain was not extremely involved in European affairs, colonisation of north America progressed, and parliament survived as a major state institution if not with the enthusiastic approval of James. That is the case for the twenty two year period from 1603 to 1625.

His son Charles, decent and cultured as an individual, was less talented at preserving the state and engaged in various forms of disruption. He tried to rule without parliament by stretching his tax powers to a creative extreme and pushed through changes in the doctrine and ritual of the Church of England with some brutality. This all started becoming counter-productive when the Scots rose up against a clumsy attempt to enforce conformity to the changed Church of England, though differences in the Scottish church had been recognised under James. The very brief summary of subsequent events is that Charles lost the subsequent Civil War/War of the Three Kingdoms, and lost his head after failing to acquiesce in a more limited form of monarchy.

A strong strand of sovereigntist-Eurosceptic thought comes out of a Tory detestation of the execution of a king and the institution of a republic known as the Commonwealth. Such blunt dislike of a movement which at least started as an increase in parliamentary power looks a bit odd now after a long period of purely symbolic monarchy in Britain and Oliver Cromwell who betrayed or stablished the republic as Lord Protector after three years, has long been recognised as a constructive and personally honest figure in British state history, even by those with a strong dislike of his more autocratic and religiously enthusiastic inclinations.

Some republicans, such as the poet and political thinker John Milton were themselves inclined towards a very Anglocentric understanding of liberty and Protestant religion (the Civil War was in significant part about the rights of those Protestants not conforming to the Church of England), so providing a kind of alternative sovereigntist narrative to the royalist story. In the past the republican narrative has been associated with the left, but the Eurosceptic right has to some degree recently been happy to be associated with it, as they attempt to associate the European Union with seventeenth century absolute monarchs supposedly following a state system foreign to the ancient Liberties and Constitution of England.

One problem with this is that republicans were initially eager to pursue a state union with the Dutch Republic which provide a model of republicanism in Protestant Europe. This failed because of a Dutch wish to protect a privileged trading and colonial system from British competition, and avoid being swallowed up by a bigger state. The Dutch Republic of the United Provinces was not even the only European model of republicanism. The most important British republican of that time, James Harrington, was inspired by Machiavelli and therefore the Florentine republican tradition, though he did not follow Machiavelli in every respect.

It should also be noted that European assemblies sometimes had more power than the English parliament. Though Spain of that era is generally associated with absolute monarchy of a cruel and even obscurantist type, the reality is that provincial assemblies and laws strongly hemmed in the power and tax raising capacities of the Habsburg monarchs, to the extent that these autocrats were less able to raise taxes than English monarchs and finance an effective state system.

Next Revolution and the Dutch Model in the late 17th Century