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More Questions In Politics, Please

Paul Guillory

Posted on December 2, 2017 16:19

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Before we give up on politics, we would do well to remember history. A little perspective can go a long way.

Today’s politics could use some perspective and asking questions is a good place to start. Questions imply humility and an admission that we can do better. And we know we can do better.

I can’t control what others do, think or say, but I can practice self-improvement. And, what better time for this than when everything appears to be broken? 

These are strange political times and in such times, I find myself drawn to history; not because it represents truth — history is full of unanswered questions — but because it improves the quality of our thoughts. Reading history is like asking questions. It implies that we don’t have all the answers.

The texture of a whole story is where the lessons are; not in the decontextualized sound bites of a 24-hour news cycle, where we're always on to the next snippet. But, people and politics are not snippets. They are not even wholes. They are boundless.

So, it was then I began reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant by William S. McFeely. I hoped to learn something. I hoped it would raise questions.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson succeeded to the presidency before being defeated for a second term by Grant. I learned that Grant, an historical figure I admire and who’d peerlessly destroyed Civil War opponents in battle, would prove far less cunning as president.

The trouble started when Grant’s new, opportunistic brother-in-law, Abel Corbin, involved the president in a Wall Street scandal. Corbin owed millions in gold shares and Grant was suspected of favoring a monetary policy entailing the sale of large Treasury reserves of gold bullion. 

The administration’s goal was, believe it or not, to shrink the agriculturally based economy. They hoped to avoid an economic bubble while also decreasing wheat prices at home. This would increase demand abroad.

To men like Corbin this was unacceptable. It would flood the market and decrease gold prices, ruining Corbin’s long position in gold.

So, disguising it as disinterested advice from a Wall Street expert, Corbin lobbied Grant in the opposite direction. Initially, Grant listened. The wisdom of whether to expand or shrink the economy was by no means clear.

Eventually, however, Grant’s Spidey Sense kicked in and he sent Corbin a stern warning to vacate his gold position. 

Terrified, Corbin tried to get out by browbeating a young protégé into assuming his gold shares. However, the young trader, who also owned gold, went behind Corbin’s back the next day and hyped the price before anonymously dumping his own shares without telling Corbin. A day later, Grant had Treasury sell the gold bullion. The price plummeted. 

Corbin was ruined, and the stock market panic known as Black Friday ensued. Whether Grant had colluded or not, the press and opposing party got wind of the story and pounced. Imagine. Lincoln’s assassination, the Civil War, slavery, a ruined South, and now this. 

Historical analogies are never perfect. But some perspective can help us navigate today’s political waters.

 

 

 

Paul Guillory

Posted on December 2, 2017 16:19

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Bari Weiss , Wall Street Journal In our surreal age of identity politics, pretending is politically incorrect.

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