The Ten Worst Americans [UPDATED]
Ok, Alexandra, here are my picks. This was rather difficult because most of the evils in American history and American life are collective, rather than individual evils. Some of the most heinous things in American history have no outstanding single perpetrators. And while Americans have committed private outrages galore, very few of these have had a significant long-term impact on the country as a whole.
One of the classic cases of collective American evil is the slaughter of Northern California Indians after 1848. This was the work of nameless and faceless men in a loosely organized “California Volunteer Militia” championed by the California press, which openly referred to their activities as “extermination”. This is perhaps the single incident in our history that was explicitly, unequivocally, and inescapably genocide.
Another classic case was the explosive expansion of Black slavery in the South which resulted from the invention of the Cotton Gin. The rise of the “peculiar institution” was a collective evil, perhaps the evil that will stain our name longest.
The people I have chosen are those who committed heinous actions of national scope which they, as individuals could have avoided or refused. In many cases they are the immediate perpetrators of broader evils whose actual source cannot be explicitly traced to one man. Consequently, few of them were evil in the sense that, say, Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin were evil. We simply don’t seem to grow monsters on that scale.
General Winfield Scott—the man who took over the job of forcing the Cherokee Nation from Georgia into Oklahoma—the Trail of Tears. His predecessor, General John Wool, resigned his commission rather than be a party to it. Some of the most famous names in American Congressional history, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Davy Crocket opposed the policy that mandated it. About 4000 Cherokee died as a result of the removal.
Kit Carson—the principle architect of the Long Walk of the Navajo Nation to Bosque Redondo in southern New Mexico. Carson himself estimated the total Navajo population to be 15,000; perhaps 11,600 of these were force marched south in 1863-64, 9000 were officially counted at Bosque Redondo in 1865; of these 7,500 were left by the time the Navajo were allowed to go back to their traditional lands in 1868. In the interval about 4000 died of various causes—or around 20-25% of the total population in a mere five years.
[Deleted: See Comments Below]--ed.
John C. Calhoun—South Carolina senator and author of the political theory which nearly tore this country apart, Disquisition on Government, which is the anti-Declaration of Independence, the anti-United States Constitution, and the anti-Federalist Papers that formed the basis for the South’s secession.
General William T. Sherman—Who invented the modern war made deliberately against the civilian population supporting the armies in the field. The March Through Georgia is the prototype for every deliberate military assault on civilian infrastructure from the bombing of Guernica, through Hiroshima & Nagasaki, to our own day.
Alan Pinkerton—The man who turned American industrial companies into a law unto themselves, by providing them with entire private police forces, from his Pinkerton Agency, during the blackjack and brass knuckle phase of American labor relations. All a mill or mine owner had to do was slip the country sheriff a little extra cash and Alan’s fine boys suddenly became “deputies”. Because of Alan, not only could they buy the law, they could outsource the muscle. Now was that a deal, or what?
Tom Horn—The most remorseless and cold-blooded killer in the American West, a man who specialized in “bushwhacking” or shooting people in the head with a rifle from hiding. He himself described it this way, “Killing men is my specialty. I look at it as a business proposition, and I think I have a corner on the market.” Unlike almost all other Western badmen, lawmen, and both together, there was absolutely nothing in his circumstances or by chance that ever forced him to kill men. He charged Montana cattle ranchers $500 a hit. And he once offered a volume discount to the Governor of Montana [also a large rancher] of a mere $5000 to kill all the cattle rustlers in the entire county where the Governor had his ranch. The Governor backed out on the deal at the last minute.
Arnold Rothstein—The man who took advantage of Prohibition and single-handedly created American organized crime. His role was that of investment banker. He capitalized the up and coming young hoodlums in the alcohol trade such as Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Ben “Bugsy” Segal, and Frank Costello. By borrowing Rothstein’s cash as venture capital, and learning his business acumen, they turned liquor, gambling, narcotics, and prostitution into a country-wide multi-million dollar industry.
Senator Joseph McCarthy—the single most dangerous American political demagogue ever. No reputation was safe from his quest for power and influence through exploiting America’s paranoid “anti-communist” hysteria. He also invented the modern form of the Senate Hearing as a trial-by-media, where guilt is presumed, rather than innocence.
Jim Jones—The modern self-immolating religious cultmeister personified. Need I say more?
My post garnered a nice citation from Alas: A Blog, and a fine complement from LeftBehinds:
Joseph Marshall: excellent list! You are either a history buff or an actual historian.
The only rationalization I have for my less evil list is that Alexandra didn't say the most evil or the most criminal Americans, she just said the worst, which is more ambiguous. Hence Leo Strauss, Ayn Rand, and Paris Hilton, who truly do represent some of our worst traits as a nation.
So I continued:
Thanks for the complement LeftBehinds. Actually, I'm merely old Joe Claus, poorer than a churchmouse, indifferently mentally ill, precariously medicated, and highly skeptical of the general slackness of mind among his fellow citizens. I once had a professor who spoke of his "reading around". It's what I've been doing since age 5.
After five decades of it, you accumulate a lot of perfectly useless information. It also encourages you to develop mature and balanced judgement, even about the people you dislike and disagree with. I recommend it highly, particularly to opinionated political bloggers.
So far, I am most impressed with the list of The New Victorian. He knows Treason like the back of his hand.
The one I am most looking forward to is Captain's Quarters. Ed is one of the least slack minds in the blogosphere, and I know he won't just pop off names of his pet peeves at random, or merely list every Democratic President of the 20th Century.
Most who have answered here and elsewhere remind me of nothing so much as the tenants of identical basinets in the maternity ward, in terms of their inability to reliably discriminate either genuine moral good and personal courage [which may or may not lead to good results], or genuine and consciously chosen moral evil, courageous or not.
A classic answer here, such as, "Martin Luther King, for the number of well-named streets whose names have been changed to his." has all the depth of a tea-saucer.
T.S.Eliot once remarked that the worst thing about most people who do evil things is that they are not "man enough to be dammed", that they are simply indifferently conscious of the moral nature of their choices.
This is by far the most destructive thing about slackness of mind. If you are not lucky enough to be good by instinct, you are very likely to be bad by default.
Thanks, again, Alexandra.
UPDATE: As I expected, Ed Morrisey's list is superb: consistent, coherant, and thoroughly reasoned--by far the best I've seen. The most interesting thing to me is how little the good Captain is interested in the American evils that I find most prominent: the evils that were largely successful. The people on Ed's list made far less difference to the actual shape and destiny of America than mine.
My own critique of the more intelligent forms of Conservatism lies just here: their willingness to pretend that the largely succesful evils: slavery, flagrant and repeated trechery toward the Indian nations, and industrial or large landowner oppression of small freeholders or unorganzed labor, either weren't evil, didn't exist, or weren't important.
They were. And they still make up the fabric of who we are. For better or worse they stain the name and shape the prospects of every American.