Eleven’s Showdowns (Age 12 to 66)

Here are the confrontations in which Jane Hopper, AKA Eleven, defeats a baddie. They are dramatic encounters involving high emotion and distress on her part, starting with the demogorgon when she was 12, and ending with the apocalyptic third Gate when she was 66. In chronological order they are as follows:

Vaporizing the Demogorgon (12 years old)
Confronting Ray the lab technician (13 years old)
Closing the first Gate on the Mind Flayer (13 years old)
Fighting Billy in the sauna (14 years old)
Leg surgery (14 years old)
Freeing Billy from the Mind Flayer (14 years old)
Killing the Shadow Worm (15 years old)
Destroying the Illithid (19 years old)
Battling the witch Baba Yaga (21 years old)
Capturing the serial killer Black Rose (26 years old)
Annihilating the Llaza (38 years old)
Closing/Destroying the third Gate (66 years old)

Here’s how they rank.

1. Closing the first Gate on the Mind Flayer (13 years old, in 1984). This is the showdown against which all others on this list are measured. It’s the demogorgon times five. It shows a girl taking life’s cold lessons and using that blackness to her advantage. Her friends have done what they can to help: Will has been exorcised, and the demo-dogs have been diverted by an underground attack. The momentum has piled like a juggernaut, and Eleven lets it loose. It’s really too much for her. She’s furious and exhausted and plagued by her own demons, not least the specter of Papa who taunts her once again: “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound… and it’s festering, and it will grow… spread… and eventually, it will kill you.” And that’s what puts her over the edge, giving her the requisite anger as Kali taught her. Watch the scene here.

2. Annihilating the Llaza (38 years old, in 2009). The Llaza may be the most terrifying Upside Down creature, because it’s omnipresent and too abstract to nail down. In its ether-larva stage it attacks through the internet, corrupting computer files into horrifying images to break peoples’ minds. Jane’s 15-year old son, Mike Hopper, becomes especially vulnerable to the Llaza’s attacks because of his psychic powers. He is subjected to a terrifying perversion of the actress Ellen Page in his screensaver slideshow, and suddenly finds that he can accelerate time through people and age them to death in a matter of seconds (which he does to four high-school bullies). Mike Hopper is just what the Llaza needs: it has a trillion year lifespan and would take centuries to grow out of its ether stage. By provoking Mike to attack it, it is helped not harmed, and reaches adulthood in minutes, whereupon it comes smashing through Mike’s computer screen and assumes corporeal form to terrorize the world. Jane arrives home to find Mike hardly alive, frozen in his bedroom wall and functioning as the Llaza’s battery. She must fight a battle like she’s never fought in her life, and destroy this abstract creature without killing her son in the process. Read the gripping scene here.

3. Freeing Billy from the Mind Flayer (14 years old, in 1985). Eleven’s liberation of Billy is a crowning moment of triumph because she’s powerless, thanks to the Mind Flayer’s infection (see #7, below). What she does, however, is tap into Billy’s most vulnerable source of pain that she witnessed while inside his mind earlier that day. It’s a moving scene and one of Eleven’s most impressive victories. Essentially she frees Billy from the Mind Flayer through the power of love. Normally that kind of thing is cheesy, but it’s certainly not in this case. Oddly, the scene evokes Frodo and Sam’s moment on Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s film. Frodo’s spirit was similarly crushed, he couldn’t stand on his own, and his memories of the Shire were conveyed with the same emotional appeal used by Eleven to reach Billy — with memories of his mother on the California beach. Watch the powerful scene here.

4. Destroying the Illithid (19 years old, in 1990). The Illithid: the Lord of the Upside Down. Mr. Clarke dies protecting the “kids” (who are 19-year olds now) from this horrible entity, and Jane then kills it — but not before it tears out Mike Wheeler’s eyes. As if it hadn’t done enough to Mike by that point. The history goes back to the kids’ sophomore year in high school, when they were fifteen. Jane had chased the Illithid after it murdered Mike, but it escaped, leaving a nasty pet for her to kill instead (see #10 below, the Shadow Worm). They had all thought Mike was dead, but the Illthid had powers of resurrection, and it raised Mike to be a slave in the Upside Down. For three and a half years (between January 25, 1987 – August 3, 1990) Mike Wheeler was tortured and treated like a beast. His escape and return to Hawkins brought the Illithid hot on his heels, and Jane finished what she couldn’t do before. But after years of torture, Mike is dysfunctional, and now on top of that blind and crippled. Read the unpleasant scene here.

5. Vaporizing the Demogorgon (12 years old, in 1983). Her first showdown is the heartbreaking sacrifice. It devastates Mike, who has just promised to take her in as a member of his family. It’s a rare case when a fake death works, because season 2 will keep everyone thinking she’s still dead until the very end. All the traits are in place that will define later showdowns: the nosebleeds; the hysterical exhaustion; the cost of using her powers; and the overwhelming guilt she suffers, knowing the Upside Down’s intrusion is her fault. Five decades of pain and tragedy lie ahead on account of opening the first Gate. But that accident also results in momentous friendships and new families. If Hawkins Indiana and Portland Oregon will suffer from the Upside Down, they will also be brightened by heroes willing to sacrifice themselves. Watch this foundational scene here.

6. Closing/Destroying the third Gate (66 years old, in 2037). In the post-apocalypse Jane is a raving lunatic and you can’t blame her. Life has dealt her one shitty hand after another. The east and west coasts are nuclear wastelands, and the midwest has been swamped by the Upside Down. Eventually all of America will be under the shadow. Her son is 12 years old for the third time, having aged backwards down to infancy, and then forwards again, stuck on the road of childhood. What mother wouldn’t break under fate this cruel? As William Byers takes care of Mike in the primitive Hawkins Colony (and learns that Mike has the ability to time-travel), Jane is cared for at the old Hawkins Lab, nursed by scientists who pray that her mind will heal. She’s the only hope of closing the new Gate and stopping the shadow invasion. This Gate is a monstrous entity — it has reproductive ability, constantly producing smaller gates (called Pockets) which materialize across America and unleash hordes of creatures everywhere. But Jane can’t save the world until she is saved by her son: Mike hatches a wild plan to go back in time (to 2031) and prevent the Pockets from being created in the first place. But through a terrible chain of events, it is he who ends up creating the Pockets and initiating the holocaust. Before dying in the past he is able to do one good thing — heal his mother across time, through the psychic link of the 12-year-old version of his mother he recruited (along with his father Mike Wheeler, and Lucas Sinclair and Dustin Henderson) from the year 1983. In the present, the 66-year old Jane tells the doctors her mind is healed and that she is ready to take on the Gate. Read that mighty scene here.

7. Leg surgery (14 years old, in 1985). Eleven’s ultimate battle with the Mind Flayer is waged within the confines of her flesh, and though she wins, she loses. Shortly after tearing the critter from her leg, she realizes her powers are gone. This leaves others to save the day: her friends bomb the Mind Flayer with fireworks, and Joyce and Hopper close the Gate. She actually saves the day too, without her powers, by liberating Billy (see #3 above), but the flayed infection of her body is the most violating attack she suffers in her whole life (aside from Baba Yaga’s assault in 1992, see #8 below). A creature burrowing inside you takes agony to a new level. When El screams during her self-surgery, it looks like her head will explode (a mall window shatters instead). It was a bold move for the show writers to strip El of her powers at the point she will need them most. Watch the visceral scene here.

8. Battling Baba Yaga (21 years old, in 1992). Jane’s deadliest adversary isn’t an Upside-Down creature, but a Slavic witch: the legendary Baba Yaga who terrorizes countrysides and eats little kids. She travels the world in her Dancing Hut, which on the outside is a tiny log cabin with giant legs; on the inside it’s a thousand times bigger, with rooms filled with horrors worse than demogorgons. Baba Yaga’s appearance is deceptive; she looks like a feeble crone and hobbles around on a stick, but that’s purely for show, as she’s actually quite strong and fast, and practically invincible. Weapons don’t harm her, and she’s immune to psionic powers; only magic can kill her. When Jim Hopper goes after Baba Yaga thinking she’s a harmless old bag, he becomes trapped insider her Hut, accompanied by three kids who die one by one. Jane breaks in to rescue him, but her psychic powers are as useless as her father’s gun. They’re both powerless as the witch murders people in front of them, drives Hopper insane with black magic — and then rips off Jane’s left arm and eats it like a turkey drum. But then, just then, as Jane resigns herself to a dying agony, she gets an idea. Read the scene here.

9. Throwing Billy through a brick wall (14 years old, in 1985). It starts as a group effort with the kids trapping Billy, but he doesn’t stay trapped for long. The face-off between him and El is a ripper. She hurls a weighted-barbell at him; he throws it off, and lifts her up and chokes her; Mike clubs him from behind, and Billy prepares to kill him when El — screaming like a lioness — levitates him and throws him literally through a brick wall. How his bones stay in one piece is anyone’s guess, but then he is possessed by the Mind Flayer. (Apparently the final bit with El collapsing into Mike’s arms and crying wasn’t an act; Millie Bobby Brown was so drained from shooting the scene that she broke down, and Finn Wolfhard improvised accordingly.) Of all the showdowns on this list, this one is the most ass-kicking, and the inverse of the tender salvation Eleven provides Billy in the end (see #3, above). Watch the scene here.

10. Killing the Shadow Worm (15 years old, in 1987). The final ’80s conflict centers on the tragedy of Mike Wheeler and his death at the hands of the Illithid — the most powerful entity of the Upside Down. Eleven chases the creature through the woods, hell-bent on revenge. It’s night and she can’t see a thing; she has to use the Void to navigate. And it’s cold, a punishing -20 degrees, thanks to the Illithid’s ability to affect local temperatures. Thunder and lightning start assailing her, which makes no sense in the arctic cold of January, but it’s again the creature working its shenanigans. She keeps chasing the creature, but it makes its getaway to the Upside Down, and she will have to wait three and a half years for the opportunity to kill it (see #4, above). She runs into its nasty pet, however: a shadow worm over 40 feet long, with breath of nauseating poison. Barely able to function in the freezing night, she lashes out with her powers; the worm roars in fury, breathing its sulfuric poison; the lightning accelerates to a crisis. Eleven finally tears the worm apart, in as much sympathy for the creature as rage for Mike. After this night she’s never the same person again. Accepting her role in Mike’s death, she leaves Indiana for Oregon, to put behind a past that has defined her too brutally. Read the worm showdown here.

11. Confronting Ray (13 years old, in 1984). The next two involve human villains who are no match for Jane at all. The challenge comes on a personal level as she is forced to come to terms with herself as a person of extraordinary power. In the case of Ray, he is supposed to be her trial victim. Having joined a street gang led by her lab sister, she craves vengeance — as only a 13-year old can — for Papa’s crimes against herself and the mother she never knew. On the verge of killing Ray (one of Papa’s old lab technicians), she stops when she sees that he has a family, and that the man is more pathetic than evil. It’s a pivotal moment in Eleven’s character arc, the point at which she makes a conscious decision to not follow a path of revenge and homicide. Ultimately, her sparing Ray (to Kali’s fury) makes her realize that her home is back in Hawkins, with the sheriff who took her in, and with the boy who became her first friend and boyfriend. (I can’t find this scene anywhere on youtube, no doubt because so many people hate the Lost Sister episode. They are wrong: it’s a very good episode that gave Eleven a strong character journey in season 2.)

12. Capturing Black Rose (26 years old, in 1997). By now a single mom with a three-year old son, Jane has been recruited by her father to help him capture a dangerous serial killer known as Black Rose. The killer rapes and butchers attractive women in their 20s, and leaves plastic black roses in their mouths as a calling card. Jane narrows the killer down to one of four police detectives, which Hopper has trouble accepting; he has worked with them all, and they are first-rate cops. When Jane finally figures out which of the four it is, it’s by accident, and only after accusing the wrong detective and getting him arrested. As the innocent one is being interrogated, Jane is attacked by the real killer — who has no idea who he’s messing with, and she easily overpowers him. The intensity of their confrontation owes not to Jane’s endangerment, but because he killed Jane’s best friend Nicki, thanks to Jane’s recklessness. The showdown brings home to Jane how she sees the world: as a woman of power who doesn’t need to worry about threats of sexual violence. To her, serial killers are pests; to the rest of womankind they are as dangerous as demogorgons. Her friend paid the price for this blinkered perspective. Read the face-off here.

King Veto: Grover Cleveland (1885-1889; 1893-1897)

Grover Cleveland was the last and only of many things: the last ultra-conservative Democrat; the last president presiding entirely in the 19th century; the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms (he was the 22nd and the 24th president). He loved to veto bills and vetoed hundreds of them, literally. He boasts an excellent peace record, a shoddy prosperity record, and an abysmal liberty record. We shall proceed in descending order.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Cleveland wisely withdrew two treaties from senatorial consideration. The first was the Frelinghuysen-Zavala Treaty, which was signed by Chester Arthur in 1884, months before he left office. (One of Arthur’s few and minor faults.) It gave the U.S. the right to construct a canal in Nicaragua that was to be owned jointly by the two nations. Cleveland believed the treaty would require the U.S. to defend Nicaragua, which would mean an entangling alliance better to avoid. He was right, and Congress had refused to ratify it on Arthur’s watch in any case, because the agreement violated an existing treaty with Great Britain.

The second treaty was a treacherous one — for the annexation of Hawaii, signed by Benjamin Harrison in 1893, immediately before he left office. The background is important: When the King of Hawaii died in 1891, his sister Lili’uokalani had succeeded him, and at the request of her people, she drafted a new constitution to restore native rights and powers. This move was opposed by a group of white American businessmen known as the Committee on Annexation, who wanted Hawaii annexed since the U.S. was the major importer of Hawaiian agricultural goods. The committee was endorsed by the U.S. Minister to Hawaii, John Stevens, who led a group of Marines to overthrow Queen Lili’uokalani in January of 1893. Stevens installed the committee as the new regime, and without permission from the U.S. State Department, he then recognized the new regime and declared Hawaii to be a U.S. protectorate. Benjamin Harrison went along with this, and signed a treaty of annexation with the new government on his way out of office. But before senators could ratify the treaty, Cleveland snatched it out of their grasps from consideration. He was right to do this. The native Hawaiians had opposed the coup against Queen Lili’uokalani, and they didn’t want to be a part of the United States. The treaty signed by Harrison had been foully obtained, and it opposed the right of self-determination outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

Two risky interventions

Generally speaking, Cleveland continued in the above spirit of non-interventionism. But not always, and he took two exceptional risks.

(1) Samoa. He risked war with Germany in 1886 over the islands of Samoa, which the Germans wanted to take as an imperial colony. His intentions were certainly good. He was consistently anti-colonial, and as in the later case of Hawaii, he was standing up for small islands against a powerful nation on general principle. On the other hand, unlike the case of Hawaii, he was risking war with a powerful nation over a place where no major U.S. interests were at stake. It came to nothing: he sent a fleet to the islands, but a cyclone sank the American ships along with the German fleet. (Benjamin Harrison would later resolve the issue with the Berlin Treaty of 1889, which set up a three county protectorate over the islands between the U.S, Germany, and Great Britain.)

(2) Venezuela. He risked war with Britain in 1895 over Venezuela, in a boundary dispute with Britain’s colony in Guyana. Cleveland claimed that the disputed boundary came under the Monroe doctrine, which actually wasn’t true. Britain wasn’t trying to establish a new colony or take over Venezuela, but simply negotiate the boundary of an existing colony. Cleveland’s Secretary of State (Richard Olney) sent Britain a shockingly rude statement denying Britain’s perceived rights, and Britain unsurprisingly rejected this “diplomatic” message. Cleveland threatened war, but lucky for him, Britain was too busy dealing with Germany and the Boers in South Africa. Britain agreed to compromise in the U.S.’s favor. Cleveland had won, but only by expanding the scope of the Monroe Doctrine beyond what Monroe had originally intended — and again in an area that had little strategic interest to the U.S.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

Cleveland rightly opposed the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which had been vetoed by Rutherford Hayes, but then overridden. This easy-money act required the U.S. Treasury to buy and coin all the silver it could get hold of, which irresponsibly increased the money supply. But as much as he opposed this act, he respected it and did not pursue alternative legislation, believing firmly in the separation of powers.

On the other hand, he made clear his right to veto any bill that he opposed, and he meant business by that remark. Click on the right table, to see how ruthlessly Cleveland wielded his veto power. He vetoed 414 bills in his first term alone, and then 170 more during his second term, for a total of 584 vetoes. No other president in history ever came close to that record (save FDR). Modern libertarians love Cleveland for this, apparently seeing him as a bulwark against governmental tyranny. That makes no sense; it was Cleveland who was often being the executive tyrant. Using one’s veto power as a default setting amounts to a one-man tyranny over an entire legislative body. And Cleveland’s vetoes were often reprehensible.

For example, in 1887 he vetoed the Dependent and Disability Pension Act, which granted a pension to any Civil War veteran who couldn’t do manual labor. It proposed $12 a month to every vet who qualified, retroactively to the point at which the vet was entitled to it. It was a reasonable and humane bill, but Cleveland had no use for disabled war veterans. Incredibly, he called the bill a “premium of fraud”. Most people would call it a minimum of decency. (The bill was signed into law three years later, by Cleveland’s successor Benjamin Harrison.)

Also that same year, Cleveland vetoed the Texas Seed Bill. Texans were suffering under a nasty drought. There was no grass to graze, and 85% of the cattle in most of Texas died. The remaining cattle were starving, as were the farmers, who had eaten their seed corn to survive. Congress authorized $10,000 (equivalent to $223,000 today) worth of seed to the farmers. That was a modest amount, but Cleveland vetoed the bill, saying, “though the people support the government, the government should not support the people”. If Cleveland took the humane approach to overseas natives in danger of being colonized, he sure as hell didn’t have much interest in taking care of his own American citizens.

The Panic of 1893

Cleveland wasn’t much better during his second term, when he succeeded his successor (Benjamin Harrison) in 1893. The Panic of 1893 lasted until 1897, and was the second worst depression in American history (after the Great Depression of the 1930s). The depression was Harrison’s fault, not Cleveland’s. On top of the problem of the over-building of railroads, Harrison added fuel to the fire with (1) high tariffs, (2) federal spending, and (3) loose money policies. Tariffs increase the prices of imports to consumers and decrease their buying power, and they also cause U.S. exports to decline as other countries retaliate with tariffs of their own. High federal spending requires government borrowing which crowds out the more productive private borrowing, thus slowing the economy. Increasing the money supply causes inflation as a rule, which leads to recession. Harrison had increased the money supply by endorsing the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 — vastly increasing the amount of silver the government was required to purchase by the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, to begin with. People then cashed in to get gold from the government’s gold supply, depleting the nation’s gold reserves.

Cleveland’s solution to this mess was both good and bad. The good thing that he did was restore the gold standard: He repealed the abominable Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, vetoed Congress’ proposal to compel the Treasury to convert its silver stock into coins, and arranged a deal by which Wall Street financiers would buy U.S. bonds with gold. The bad thing that he did was sign the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 — more properly called the Income Tax Act of 1894. The act reduced tariffs, which was a very good thing, but it did so at the steep price of bringing back the income tax (which Lincoln had imposed during the Civil War). Cleveland should have used his veto-happy penmanship to kill this act in its crib. By approving it, he made a bad recession even worse; the income tax dragged down al already sagging economy. Restoring the gold standard was a long-term good, but it couldn’t heal the recession over night, and the income tax put a long suspension on that healing process.

3. Liberty

Cleveland was no friend to people of color, or to women. To say the least.

African Americans: He supported segregation as Constitutional, refused to enforce the voting rights of African Americans, repealed other laws which protected blacks in the south, and didn’t lift a pinky-finger to oppose the South’s Jim Crow laws. Talk about an asshole.

Native Americans: To the Indians he at least offered the illusion that he was a friend. With the Dawes Act of 1887, he gave full citizenship to all Native Americans who accepted individual land grants, and to farm on them. But farming was alien to the Indian way of life; they lacked the tools and expertise for it. What the act really did was allow whites to get control of millions of acres of Indian land, reducing the Native American Indian holdings by a whopping 67%. Thanks to Cleveland, the Indians once again got the shaft.

Chinese Immigrants: He lobbied Congress to pass the Scott Act of 1888, which barred Chinese from reentering the U.S. if they left.

Women’s suffrage: He believed that women had no place in politics and condemned the suffrage movement. (See the above cartoon, published during his second term in the mid-1890s. It shows him carrying a book called, “What I know about women’s clubs,” and being chased with an umbrella by Susan B. Anthony, as Uncle Sam laughs in background). He would become even more vocal against suffrage in the 20th century, after he left office. Suffrage had begun as early as the 1840s, but it was in full swing by 1890, with Anthony spearheading the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Cleveland opposed the cause in an increasingly enlightened decade.

Union workers: Cleveland violated the Constitution during the Pullman Strike of 1894. The Pullman Company forced its employees to live like slaves in “Pullman towns”, and when it forced them to take a 25% pay cut without reducing rents, the workers rightfully went on strike. The American Railroad Union refused to move trains with Pullman cars on them. The governor of Illinois (John Altgeld), believing in workers’ rights, did not want military troops involved, but Cleveland sent troops anyway to break up the strike. This was utterly shameful on his part, but also illegal, as a president needs the formal request of the state governor before sending in the military.

It would be an understatement to say that, as the Progressive Era was in stride, Grover Cleveland was not on board with the idea of liberty for all peoples, genders, and social classes. His liberty record is a massive fail.


Here’s how I score Grover Cleveland:

Peace. For withdrawing two needless treaties (one of them especially foul), and for keeping the nation at peace, Cleveland deserves gold stars. He went to bat for Samoa for the best of reasons, but risked war with Germany over a place of no strategic interest (-1 point) and then in his second term risked war with Britain by expanding the Monroe Doctrine over another place of little strategic value (-2 points).

Prosperity. For repealing the Sherman Silver Purchase, vetoing Congress’s inflationary measures, and bringing back the gold standard, he deserves praise. For reducing tariffs (in itself a good thing) at the steep price of an income tax which he should have vetoed, and which torpedoed an already sagging economy, I downgrade him mightily, by 6 points. Vetoing the Dependent Pension Bill costs him another 2, and refusing to lift a finger to aid those suffering from natural disaster costs him another 3.

Liberty. For shitting on almost everyone who wasn’t white and male — African Americans, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, women, union workers — especially as the Progressive Era was under way in the 1890s, I could score him zero liberty points. I throw him 3 for giving the Indians full citizenship, but no more than that; he ended up harming the Indian cause far more than helping it.

Peace — 17/20
Prosperity — 9/20
Liberty — 3/20

TOTAL SCORE = 29/60 = Poor

Manifested Destiny: James Polk (1845-1849)

James Polk had a tough act to follow. John Tyler was the best president of all time, and vastly underrated by historians who don’t know enough about him. Those same historians tend to revere Polk. But Polk was actually a poor president.

I can’t say how many books I’ve read that sing Polk’s praises because he was goal-driven. Kenneth Davis’ Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents will suffice as an example. He gives Polk a perfect A-rating, his lead reason being that Polk “stated what he was going to do and accomplished his goals” (p 202). On that logic, any national leader can be great for simply doing what he sets out to do, no matter how bad his policies. Stalin and Hitler would belong in the hall of the greats.

So I’m going to examine each of the four goals for which Polk is widely praised, and — unlike every historian I have read — I am going to stop and consider whether or not each goal was actually a decent one, and also how Polk went about obtaining that goal, whether it was decent or not. The first two goals relate to peace, the second two to prosperity.

Goal #1: Take California and New Mexico from Mexico (The Mexican War)

Soon after his inauguration in March of 1845, Polk tried to buy California and New Mexico from Mexico, but the Mexicans were so enraged by Congress’s joint resolution to annex Texas (signed by John Tyler three days before leaving office), that they refused to negotiate and broke off all diplomatic relations with the U.S.

The background: Texas had been independent from Mexico since 1836, but Mexico had never really accepted accepted the loss, and the Mexicans believed, not without justification, that Americans had come from the east and stolen their lands. By the 1840s, the vast majority of Texans wanted to be annexed by the U.S., and so from one point of view, John Tyler had not done wrong in appealing to Congress to do as the Texans wished. But he had also been warned repeatedly by Mexico that if the U.S. annexed Texas, it would mean war. Tyler went ahead anyway, signed the joint resolution, and Polk enthusiastically endorsed it when he took over. At the end of December of 1845, the resolution went into effect, and Texas was admitted as a slave state. Sure enough, Mexico immediately mobilized for war. America was divided — between cool thinkers and manifest-destiny hotheads.

The term “manifest destiny” had been coined months earlier (in the summer of 1845), by the New York Jacksonian Democrat, John O’Sullivan. He insisted that the annexation of Texas was destined, and that opponents of annexation were “limiting America’s greatness” and “blocking the fulfillment of its manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence”. For this reason he believed that Oregon Country should also be taken (on which see below). James Polk was on board with this, seeing a God-given right of Americans to expand their territory and institutions.

The Mexican War began in May of 1846, after Zachary Taylor’s troops clashed with Mexicans on the north bank of the Rio Grande in late April. But Polk had been pushing Congress to declare war before the clash in the Rio Grande — hell bent on engineering a war in order to achieve his goal in taking California and New Mexico. He had sent Taylor’s troops into the disputed border region (between the Rio Grande and Neuces Rivers) hoping to provoke an attack from the Mexicans, and that certainly worked. But even worse — and even before the clash of troops — Polk had ordered a blockade of the Rio Grande which cut off supplies to the Mexican town of Matamoros. That was back in the middle of March. So it’s not just that the U.S. provoked the Mexicans into battle (by sending Taylor into disputed territory); the U.S. had actually started the war by taking the first hostile action. Blockades are acts of war.

Polk’s war was largely successful. Mexico was defeated nine months later by General Taylor in February of 1847, but the war stretched on for another full year. Americans grew increasingly angry and they condemned the Mexican War as an offensive power grab at a weaker nation’s territory. The House passed a resolution that castigated Polk for a war “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States”. The desertion rate for U.S. soldiers was 8.3%. Polk was widely despised to say the least. Finally, in February of 1848, the war was ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

The treaty confirmed the incorporation of Texas as part of the United States, and it also granted the U.S. plenty of territories — large parts of present-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. Polk achieved his goal and much more. But he did this by starting and provoking a war of conquest against a weaker neighbor. When foreign leaders beat up on the weak in this way, historians usually censure them, but in Polk’s case, they seem to think it’s all very swell.

The Mexican War helped cause the Civil War. Southerners wanted all the new territories to include slavery, while northerners wanted to prohibit further extension of slavery. Under the Missouri Compromise of 1820 both sides had been kept happy, but the new land in the southwest changed that. Polk sided with his fellow southerns and slave owners, and wanted the Missouri Compromise line to extend to the Pacific Ocean — which would have allowed slavery in Southern California, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Goal #2: Take all of Oregon Country from Britain

At the same time he was engineering war with Mexico, Polk courted war with Britain by pursuing his second goal. He wanted all of the Oregon Territory, which encompassed what is today all of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho; parts of Montana and Wyoming; and part of the Canadian province of British Columbia. The United States and Britain had controlled this area (the white area on the map) jointly under the treaty signed in 1818 by James Monroe. James Polk wanted it all for America, and in his annual address to Congress in December of 1845, he urged terminating the joint occupation, and giving the British a year to leave. This reckless brinkmanship caused yet another divide among the American citizens. By January, manifest-destiny hotheads were shouting “54-40 or Fight!”, which referred to the northern boundary of the territory (see map).

Had Britain been in the mood for a fight, Polk would have been up shit creek. The US would have found itself facing the strongest navy in the world at the same time it was sticking Mexico in the eye. Polk was very lucky: Britain was willing to compromise, and in June of 1846 (a month after the start of the Mexican War), the Senate approved the Oregon Treaty, establishing the 49th parallel as the border between the British Canada and the America. So Polk actually fell short of his goal (we’re always told that he accomplished all of his goals). He didn’t get all of the Oregon Country, only half — the half which encompassed present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. (The other half is still Canada today.) Also: while Polk is usually given full credit for acquiring these areas, he deserves only some: the Lewis & Clark expedition under Thomas Jefferson deserves most of it for staking the claim on the land to begin with. But actually Polk deserves very little credit, for the way and why he went about doing all of this. He came close to getting the nation whipped by a superpower, purely for the sake of manifest destiny.

Goal #3: Bring back the Independent Treasury

Polk’s third goal was the reinstatement of the Independent Treasury, which he restored in 1846. While this was certainly a better option to the crony capitalism of the First and Second National Banks (1791-1811; 1816-1836), the Independent Treasury wasn’t ideal. Martin Van Buren had originally proposed the idea as a “total separation of bank and state”, but it only went into effect for one year (in 1840) before it was repealed. Polk’s revival kept it in effect for 67 years until the creation of the Federal Reserve (in 1913). According to some analysts, the Independent Treasury was the best banking system the United States ever had. Thus, for example, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel:

“Historians who dismiss the Independent Treasury as constraining the government ‘to accept payments and to make them in an antiquated medium’ have never adequately explained the relative quiescence of monetary debates during its operation. The First and Second US Banks (1791-1811; 1816-1836) had divided political parties since the adoption of the Constitution. The Civil War’s national banking system and Greenbacks subsequently induced fresh convulsions over currency questions. If the Independent Treasury was in fact so obviously deficient, why did it provoke no similar political outcry? Moreover, its reenactment coincided with heavy expenditures for Polk’s war against Mexico, yet that military effort caused the economy less financial dislocation than any previous American war. During the nation’s next financial panic in 1857, the Treasury was effectively insulated from the bank suspension. There is also no evidence that the Independent Treasury hobbled the country’s economic growth.”

Those are good points, but in the long term, the Independent Treasury did have the effect of gradually centralizing financial power in the federal government. The best banking policy was that which had been advocated all along by the Jeffersonians (Jefferson, Madison, Tyler) — that is, the use of state chartered private banks without a national bank or any centralized treasury. All centralized systems — whether the First National Bank (1791-1811), the Second National Bank (1816-1836), the Independent Treasury (1840, 1846-1913), or the Federal Reserve (1913-today) — produced widespread objections, except, as Hummel notes, for the Independent Treasury. The Independent Treasury was thus the least of the centralized evils, but it still wasn’t great. Polk earns moderate marks for achieving this goal.

Goal #4: Cut tariffs

Also to his credit, Polk opposed tariffs. In 1846 his Secretary of the Treasury (Robert Walker) reduced the Whigs’ previous tariff rates from 32% to 25%, which stimulated trade. This is the one goal Polk deserves unreserved praise for, but it only gets him so far, not being a major issue.


James Polk was not the great president lionized in today’s mainstream opinion. He accomplished most of his goals, but the first two goals were not admirable, and he went about achieving them in a rash and unethical manner. His third and fourth goals were okay but only count for so much.

Peace. For recklessly courting war with two countries at once — and provoking the weaker one — for what he perceived as a God-given right, and for waging a war which the American citizens and Congressmen resented, Polk gets zero peace points. I could be inclined to throw him a few points for the end result (acquisition of the new land in itself was positive), except that I have to downgrade him again for the corollary he drafted to the Monroe Doctrine: Polk had the gall to prohibit European diplomatic intervention in the Western hemisphere, not just military intervention and colonization as Monroe had forbidden. That was an unwarranted affront on Latin American sovereignty. Polk gets a goose egg.

Prosperity. For reviving the Independent Treasury he gets moderate marks. The institution remained fairly deregulated for 67 years and provoked minimal objections among the people, but it also put America on the road to a centralized system ending in the Federal Reserve. Fighting inflation and cutting tariffs also earns him points. I score him 13.

Liberty. He scores for respecting civil liberties during the Mexican War, which is rare in U.S. history. Madison is the only other president who respected American liberty during time of war (the War of 1812). In all other major conflicts — the Quasi-War with France under John Adams, the Civil War under Lincoln, the World Wars under Wilson and FDR — the presidents in question trampled on citizens’ rights with abandon. However, Polk must be downgraded for everything he did to promote slavery. Not only did the Mexican War itself advance that cause, Polk took part in crushing the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which would have at least banned slavery in newly acquired territories.

Peace — 0/20
Prosperity — 13/20
Liberty — 9/20

TOTAL SCORE = 22/60 = Poor

The lesson to take from James Polk is that being goal-driven is meaningless. Goals are a sign of how effective a president is, but say nothing about how good he is. And Polk wasn’t good, he was poor.

When Justice Was Consistent: John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

There are two father-son dynasties in the American presidency: the John Adamses and the George Bushes. In the Bush family, it was the younger who was the disaster. In the Adams family, the elder was the bad one. John Quincy Adams was actually a decent president. He didn’t do much, but that’s just as well. Often it’s precisely when executives “do things” that the causes of peace, prosperity, and freedom suffer for it. Under Adams, the nation was kept safe; he continued Monroe’s policy of staying out of foreign affairs. He stood up for African Americans and Native Americans, more than his predecessors and two successors did, and he spoke scathingly against Islamic oppression. He had domestic transgressions, being a Federalist at heart, but they weren’t terrible ones. I’ll start with those right away.

The Antebellum New Deal

Adams’ Federalist leanings led to the formation of the National Republican Party (on which see below), and doomed him as a single term president. In 1825 he pushed a program that historians call the Antebellum New Deal. Adams wanted tariffs; and a system of interstate roads, canals, and bridges; and a national university; a naval academy; an astronomical observatory; and a national bankruptcy plan; and a Department of Interior to regulate the use of natural resources.

His Secretary of State Henry Clay (who would later found the Whig Party during Jackson’s presidency) was on the same page with him, but he warned Adams that people weren’t ready for something like this. Indeed many Americans saw Adams going well beyond what the founding fathers envisioned. This was an expansive approach to government, the opposite taken by the Jeffersonian presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) before him. Adams’ opponents believed that such power should be concentrated in state governments, not the federal.

Most of the Antebellum New Deal was defeated in Congress, though Adams did get approval for railroads and canals, which ended up costing a pretty penny on their own. To help pay for those internal programs, Adams signed the Tariff of Abominations (1828), designed to protect northern industries by taxing goods from Europe. This was a bad move on his part, as it killed whatever remaining support he had in the South, cementing his fate as a one-term president.

Two new parties: National Republicans, Democrats

Adams’ expansive approach to government put an end to the Era of Good Feelings. Two new parties emerged. The faction of Democratic-Republicans who supported John Quincy Adams (many of whom were ex-Federalists) became the National Republicans, and the faction that supported Andrew Jackson became the Democrats. Neither the National Republicans nor the Democrats can be claimed “legitimate heirs” to Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicanism. They had both strayed from founding ideals, though the Democrats were worse.

Jackson had narrowly lost the 1824 election (see right), during which year the National Republican Party was formed. Jackson opposed the bigger government and protective tariffs espoused by the National Republicans, and he considered the Adams administration to be entirely illegitimate. His supporters kept growing during Adams’ term, until on January 8, 1828, the Democratic Party was founded. The election of 1828 would be a rematch between Adams and Jackson (see below), with the latter prevailing this time. The National Republicans would dissolve during Jackson’s presidency in 1834, to be succeeded by the Whig Party (led by Henry Clay, who promoted similar “big government” ideas of the National Republicans).

The division of good guys and bad guys wasn’t so clean. The National Republicans (and later the Whigs) were losing sight of the laboring classes, but they were the lesser of two evils compared to Andrew Jackson’s breed of Democrat. While nominally in favor of the underdog, “General Jackson” personified everything the old-school Jeffersonians feared in the new frontier politics: non-accountability, demagoguery, contempt for liberty (despite the rhetoric for “rights of the common man”), and rank appeal to the uneducated.

The case of John Tyler’s multiple allegiance shifts illustrates the point. In the 1824 election, Tyler (a senator at this point) had reluctantly supported Adams over Jackson. Tyler mistrusted Adams’ big-government policies, but feared Jackson even more. Jackson’s military exploits in Florida particularly called to mind military usurpers who rose in power and led their republic to ruin. In the 1828 election, Tyler went the other way, reluctantly supporting Jackson, dismayed by four years of the National Republican approach to government. He regretted his vote as soon as Jackson took office, and in 1834, Tyler joined the newly formed Whig Party — a coalition of unlikely bedfellows allied through alienation more than shared principles. The only principle the Whigs all shared was their outrage against “King Andrew”. To quasi-Federalists (like Henry Clay) and Jeffersonians (like John Tyler), Jackson was a would-be Caesar, whose power rested on the support he whipped up from a frenzied mob; a despot who supported slavery and who force-marched the Indians out of their land. To southern states-rights advocates (also like Tyler), Jackson proved to be a traitor to that cause. But Tyler also regretted joining the Whigs. Under Henry Clay’s leadership, it became basically National Republicanism, Part 2, focused on government expansion. When Tyler became the tenth president, it didn’t take long for the Whigs to ostracize him as a traitor. There was once again a true Jeffersonian leading the nation; Tyler would be the last of his kind.

This is all to say that the expansive government under Adams, while not as bad as some of today’s libertarians make it out to be, did produce enough dissatisfaction which led to the rise of Andrew Jackson’s toxic Democrat Party. The only Democrats who place in the top half of my presidential rankings are four from the post World-War II era (Truman, Kennedy, Carter, Clinton). If Adams left much to be desired in domestic policy, he was by no means terrible. To his serious credit, he reduced the national debt from $16 million to $5 million. That alone shows the degree to which his detractors have overstated his big-government ambitions.

The Panama Convention, and Cuba

Adams continued the excellent foreign policy of James Monroe, keeping the nation out of war and needless interventions. He tried to get on board with an inter-American federation: In the spring of 1825, the foreign ministers of Columbia and Mexico invited the U.S. to attend a Pan-American Congress to be held in Panama (which was then part of Columbia). Adams liked the idea, but worried that South American nations would pull the U.S. into their hostilities against Spain, which he wanted no part of. He said that the U.S. would attend only to discuss relations with the new nations, not between them and Spain.

This decision, however, summoned the fury of the South. The Panama Convention was to include freed slaves from Haiti. When Adams sought congressional approval for U.S. participation in the convention, Southerns castigated him, as attendance by American delegates would imply approval of the Haitian government, which had attained its independence in 1804 by a slave revolt. The common Congressional wisdom was that the U.S. should continue trading with Haiti but not establish diplomatic relations. In the words of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton: “the peace of the southern states will not permit the fruits of a successful negro insurrection to be exhibited among them, nor will it permit the fact that from insurrection the Haitians are to find friends among the white people of the United States.” Adams didn’t take kindly to that, and he continued to muster as much support as he could, but his efforts came to naught.

But while his hopes for an inter-American federation failed, his policy with Cuba succeeded. Through his Secretary of State Henry Clay, he made clear that the U.S. wished no change in the Cuban situation, and (per the Monroe Doctrine) would not accept the annexation of Cuba by a European power or South American republic. Cuba remained a Spanish colony until it gained independence in 1898. This wasn’t entirely positive. It was good to keep European powers out, but blocking South American republics like Columbia and Mexico from taking over Cuba was to the island’s detriment. Cubans would have welcomed those nations against a ruler like Spain.

Greece and the Ottoman Empire: The Nature of Islam

The Greeks had rebelled against Turkish rule in 1821, and their war for independence would eventually segue into the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29. In September of 1825, Adams authorized Clay to send an official to Greece to help Americans there, to encourage the Greeks in their struggle against the Ottomans, and to discourage others from aiding the Turks. He wisely stayed out of the conflict, properly respecting the Monroe Doctrine which said to stay out of European affairs, encouraging local powers to take a stand against the Muslims.

Better than any other president in U.S. history, John Quincy Adams understood the toxic nature of Islam. His treatises on Islam published in 1830 reflected his thoughts on the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29, most of which was fought during the final year of his term. In The American Annual Register for the Years 1827-29, Adams praised Russia for coming to the aid of Greece, and condemned other European powers for not doing so. In particular he blasted Britain and France for “tying the hands of Russia, and thus preventing her from emancipating Greece entirely from the thralldom of Turkish oppression”. He explained the mandatory violence of Islam, as well as the Muslim’s right to lie and deceive:

“The precept of the Koran is perpetual war against all who deny that Muhammad is the prophet of God. The vanquished may purchase their lives, by the payment of tribute; the victorious may be appeased by a false and delusive promise of peace; and the faithful follower of the prophet, may submit to the imperious necessities of defeat: but the command to propagate the Muslim creed by the sword is always obligatory, when it can be made effective. The commands of the prophet may be performed alike, by fraud, or by force.” (p 274)

Adams knew that Christians throughout history violated Christ’s pacifist teachings and even committed atrocities in their savior’s name, but he rightly pointed out that the Christian had to go against his own doctrine to do so. In Islam that’s not the case: violence and intolerance is the very “foundation of the Muslim discourse”:

“The fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion, is the extirpation of hatred from the human heart. It forbids the exercise of it, even towards enemies. There is no denomination of Christians, which denies or misunderstands this doctrine. All understand it alike—all acknowledge its obligations; and however imperfectly, in the purposes of Divine Providence, its efficacy has been shown in the practice of Christians, it has not been wholly inoperative upon them. Its effect has been upon the manners of nations. It has mitigated the horrors of war—it has softened the features of slavery—it has humanized the intercourse of social life. The unqualified acknowledgement of a duty does not, indeed, suffice to insure its performance. Hatred is yet a passion, but too powerful upon the hearts of Christians. Yet they cannot indulge it, except by the sacrifice of their principles, and the conscious violation of their duties. No state paper from a Christian hand, could, without trampling the precepts of its Lord and Master, have commenced by an open proclamation of hatred to any portion of the human race. The Ottoman lays it down as the foundation of his discourse”. (p 300)

Which is why by comparison to jihadists, the number of Christian abortion clinic bombers is trivial — and why every mainstream Christian church condemns such rare acts whenever they happen. In all forms of mainstream Islam, holy war is like Christianity’s eucharist, fundamental to the faith. But if a president of the 21st century were to ever contrast Islam and Christianity accurately like this, he or she would be excoriated as a flaming bigot.

African Americans

Adams always opposed slavery. His famous crusades came after his presidency. In the 1830s he fought to lift the gag rule that prohibited discussion of slavery on the House floor. (The gag rule was passed by the House of Representatives in 1836, in defiance of abolitionists; it tabled all petitions against slavery indefinitely.) Adams also argued before the Supreme Court in the case of The United States v. The Amistad (1841). He defended fifty-three African Americans charged for rebellion on the Spanish ship: they had been kidnapped and transported from Africa to Cuba, where two Spaniards took over and intended to sell them into slavery in America; during the journey they broke free and killed several crew members, took over the ship, and demanded to sail back to Africa; instead the crew took them to New England, where they were jailed. Adams said that their rebellion was justified; the kidnapped men had the right to fight for their freedom, just as Americans had fought for theirs. The Supreme Court agreed and Adams won the case, providing a landmark precedent for universal rights.

Adams does not receive extra credit in my scoring for his post-presidential victories, but they are nevertheless an indicator of the strong feelings for African American justice that he always maintained.

Native Americans

One of James Monroe’s final executive acts was to negotiate the Treaty of Indian Springs in February of 1825. The treaty gave the Creek Indians less than two years to abandon their lands in Georgia. Adams became convinced that the treaty was fraudulent, since the Creek chiefs felt swindled by the leading Creek Chief William McIntosh, who had negotiated it for them on most unfavorable terms — and for personal gain, as he was handsomely paid off. The other chiefs killed McIntosh in April of 1825, which was the first time the Creeks had ordered the execution of one of their own tribe members for treason. On top of this, Governor George Troup of Georgia intended to violate the treaty by ordering an immediate survey of Creek lands.

In Adams’ view, Indian dispossession should be accomplished by gradual assimilation, and it required fair treatment. His was the minority view, as most Americans (especially on the frontier) feared Indians as savages who deserved no rights. In January of 1826, he signed a new treaty with the Creeks (The Treaty of Washington) that he wasn’t happy with, ceding much of their land to Georgia, but stipulating that the Creeks could remain on the land until they left voluntarily. Governor Troup furiously rejected the treaty and began forcibly evicting the Creeks.

Adams threatened federal intervention, but he didn’t want a civil war, and so he sent marshals (rather than military troops) to arrest surveyors who had returned from illegal forays into Creek lands. Troup replied furiously again, and mobilized the Georgia militia. Adams, recognizing the lost cause, capitulated. By 1827 the Creeks were gone from Georgia.

In my view, Adams should have persisted in defending the Creeks, but he still did more than most presidents of the 18th and 19th centuries had ever done for the Natives. He was the last president (except for John Tyler) to go to bat for the Indians in any meaningful way, until Rutherford Hayes fifty years later. With the ascendance of Andrew Jackson, Native American policy would become entirely ruthless.

When social justice was consistent

If you’re wondering why a defender of African Americans and Native Americans was so hostile to Muslims, the answer is that he wasn’t. Adams was hostile to the Islamic religion, not to Muslims as an ethnic people. People today are shockingly unable to grasp that distinction. The Southern Poverty Law Center, in particular, has fallen from its glory days of the ’70s and ’80s, when it used to go after actual hate-mongers and violent supremacists like neo-Nazis. Today the organization blacklists those who speak out against hate-mongers and violent supremacists — if the supremacists are Muslim. Condemning jihadists and sharia advocates, and pointing out how their ideology is grounded in all mainstream forms of Islam, is deemed bigoted and racist.

It happens all the time. To Islamic reformers like Maajid Nawaz; to human rights activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and to those like Robert Spencer and Sam Harris who write academically about Islam. Instead of applauding these individuals as they deserve, the left has vilified them. None of them is an anti-Muslim bigot, and only a moron would think so.

The problem is exacerbated when presidents like Bush and Obama insist on the peaceful nature of the Islamic religion. People believe what their national leaders tell them, and a problem can’t be fixed if it’s falsely diagnosed. John Quincy Adams would have diagnosed the post-9/11 world with precision and called out Islam as the religion of violence it has always been. He would have avoided vain interventions abroad, just as he stayed out of Greece. But I imagine that he wouldn’t have hesitated to strike back against terrorists who assaulted the American people. His father John Adams failed on this point, and relied on appeasement policies with the Barbary Muslims. Thomas Jefferson reversed that policy and smashed the terrorists. On issues of foreign policy and liberty, at least, John Quincy Adams was more akin to Jefferson than his father. He may have been a domestic Federalist, but he was a true justice advocate who cared about the security and freedom of all peoples.


Peace. For his excellent policies of peace and keeping the nation out of war and needless conflict, I score Adams very high, docking him only a point for his status quo policy with Cuba. In rightfully insisting that Cuba should not be transferred or annexed by European powers, Adams should not have also blocked the South American republics, which Cuba would have welcomed.

Prosperity. For his heavy-handed Antebellum New Deal, which guaranteed the emergence of Jackson’s Democrat party, I slice his score right down the middle. Not all of Adam’s domestic agenda was bad, but America wasn’t ready for it at this time.

Liberty. He could have scored perfectly as a pre-Civil War president who opposed slavery, believed in fair treatment of the Indians, and advocated on behalf of the Greeks against the tyranny of the Ottomans. I have to dock him 5 points however, for eventually caving in to Governor Troup and allowing the Creeks to be expelled from Georgia.

Peace — 19/20
Prosperity — 10/20
Liberty — 15/20

TOTAL SCORE = 44/60 = Good

Martin Luther King Day, by State

Last year I researched MLK Day for a novel. I needed to know if Indiana kids in 1987 would have had the day off from school. For the I fun of it, I ended up researching all the states.

The federal holiday was signed by Reagan in 1983, and took effect in 1986. But many states legalized MLK Day much earlier; other states a lot later. Illinois was the first progressive in 1973; Utah the last holdout in 2000. In the year 1987, Indiana was behind the curve compared its neighbors. See the map below, where Indiana is a yellow state in a sea of progressive blue. At first Indiana only approved MLK Day as a temporary holiday, by governor decree. It wouldn’t become permanent until 1989, and schools wouldn’t close until the ’90s.

My state, New Hampshire, was even less progressive on the state level, and only slightly better on the school district level. We were the third-last state to adopt the holiday, in 1999 — an embarrassing red state sticking out in the northeast. However, many of our schools were closing long before it became a state holiday, as early as 1989 — though that was still late in the game compared to other states. I graduated from high school in ’87, and unlike the Massachusetts kids right over the border from me — who had been enjoying days off from school since ’75 — we were still going to school on that third Monday in January.

It’s worth noting the two states that celebrate MLK Day as a joint holiday with Robert E. Lee Day: Alabama and Mississippi. Virginia and Arkansas used to do the same thing until 2000 (Virginia) and 2017 (Arkansas). Alabama and Mississippi, to this day, honor King and Lee on the same day, which seems rather perverse.

Look at the map and chart below and note the variance between the year the holiday was legalized and the year schools started closing. Some schools were closing long before the day became a state-sanctioned holiday, and sometimes well after. I couldn’t always get a reliable answer as to when schools started closing. I contacted state and city librarians in every state; some were better sleuths than others.

(The maps comes from MCI Maps, though I’ve corrected this guy’s errors based on my research. He has five states in the wrong date brackets: Virginia, Florida, Rhode Island, North Dakota, and South Carolina.)

State Signed into law as a state holiday (taking effect the following January)
Schools start closing
1973 1974
1974 1970
1974 1975
Kentucky 1974 1986
1975 1976
Connecticut 1976 1973 Hartford public schools closed in ’73. Schools closed statewide in ’75.
1977 1979
New Jersey
1977 1979
Louisiana* 1977/1999 1980 * Functioned as a temporary state holiday for 20 years, until the end of ’98, repeatedly by governor decree, and then made permanent in ’99.
1977/1984/2000 1986 * Started as a joint holiday with New Year’s Day in ’77, then moved to the 3rd Monday in ’84, combining with Robert E. Lee/Stonewall Jackson Day. Became exclusively MLK Day in 2000, with Lee/Jackson Day moved to the preceding Friday, as an honorary day, not a paid holiday.
1978 1980 Schools closed in ’80, but only in Dade County; by ’86 most schools had followed suit.
Pennsylvania 1978 1979
1979 1987 * Made a state holiday in ’79, but there were no days off. Took effect as a paid day off in ’87, which is also when schools started closing.
California 1982 1976 In 2007, public school closure became mandatory.
West Virginia
1982 1986
Arkansas* 1983/1984/2017 ??? * Starting in ’83, state employees could choose two days to observe as holidays between the three options of MLK Day (3rd Monday of January), Robert E. Lee’s birthday, and the employee’s birthday. Starting in ’84, MLK Day became a joint holiday with Robert E. Lee Day. It became exclusively MLK Day in 2017, with Robert E. Lee Day moved to the second Saturday in October, as an honorary day, not a paid holiday.
North Carolina*
1983 1987 * Made a state holiday in ’83, but unpaid. Took effect as a paid holiday in ’87, which is also when schools started closing.
1983 1995
FEDERAL HOLIDAY (Signed into law, Nov 2, 1983)
1984 ??? * Signed into law as a joint holiday with Robert E. Lee Day, and still remains so to this day.
Georgia 1984 1987 Schools started closing in ’87, but in some Catholic schools only for African American students.
Minnesota 1984 1986 Optional holiday for schools in ’86, but schools that were open had to devote time to honoring MLK in some way. In later years, most schools closed for the day.
New York 1984 1986
Oregon 1984 1980
Rhode Island
1984 1983
1984 1993
1985 1986
Kansas 1985 ???
1985 1985
Nebraska 1985 1991
1985 1989
1985 1986
FEDERAL HOLIDAY (Takes effect, January 1986)
1986 1971
1986/1989 1990 * Functioned as a temporary state holiday for 2 years, until the end of ’88. Made permanent in ’89. Schools started closing in ’90, but only in Marion County. Most other schools started closing in ’91.
1986 ???
1987 ??? * Signed into law as a joint holiday with Robert E. Lee Day, and still remains so to this day.
Nevada 1987 ???
New Mexico
1987 1990
1987 1986
1988 1989
1989 1990
1989 1993
Idaho 1990 ???
South Dakota
1990 ???
Wyoming 1990 1991
Montana 1991 ???
North Dakota 1991 ???
1992 1993 The push for the holiday started in ’86, but it was fought tooth and nail until ’92, when it was finally passed by referendum. Arizona is the only state to pass MLK Day by referendum.
New Hampshire
1999 1989 Schools in Nashua, and many others throughout the state, started closing in ’89.
South Carolina
2000 1992 Some schools closed as early as ’92. By 2006 all schools were closed.
2000 ???


James Monroe (1817-1825): A Time for Kumbaya

Returning to the early presidents is a wave fresh air after all the foreign policy messes of the modern period, and James Monroe looks especially good in this light. The fifth president turned the nation away from European affairs to focus on domestic issues, and handled them very well. He presided over what came to be known as the Era of Good Feelings, an era devoid of two-party factionalism and other theaters of strife. It was a much needed kumbaya, after the disastrous War of 1812, and before the ascendance of Jacksonian frontier politics.

There were Federalists in New England who hoped that Monroe would welcome them back into the fold, but Monroe disappointed them. He wasn’t about to alienate his Democratic-Republican supporters by throwing Federalists a lifeline, and in truth they didn’t deserve it. The two-party system is the life and blood of America, but the Federalists were by now bankrupt of decent alternatives; Monroe was wise to let them go extinct.

Monroe’s Doctrine

If there was ever a Golden Rule in American-Bible politics, it was the Monroe Doctrine. And like Jesus’ Golden Rule, it was intuitively sound but easily perverted, over-interpreted, and lent itself to abuse.

Monroe didn’t want to see monarchies set up in the New World. He feared, with justification, that European powers would try to reverse the republican revolutions happening in Latin America, and set up new colonies — whether in Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Peru and/or Argentina. All these nations had won their independence from Spain and were still vulnerable. There was also the problem of Russia’s encroachment in the northwest U.S. On December 2, 1823, Monroe presented what became known as the Monroe Doctrine in his annual message to Congress. The New World and the Old World were to remain distinctly separate spheres of influence. Monroe vowed that the United States

  1. would not interfere in already existing European colonies
  2. would not interfere in European affairs
  3. would forbid European colonization of new areas
  4. would forbid European recolonization of former colonies

For decades this doctrine was for the most part applied judiciously, until presidents managed to forget the first two parts (about staying out of Europe’s business and quarrels) and focused exclusively on the last two (about keeping Europe out of the western hemisphere). Applied aggressively, that latter half then became perverted into a “morality-driven” foreign interventionist policy stating that the U.S. would intervene in any western hemisphere country that became unstable or unruly for whatever reason. The lead offender of this perversion was Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century; but there were seeds planted before him.

Monroe cannot be held accountable for the later corruption of his doctrine, or at least not to the degree Ivan Eland does. Claiming that Monroe’s foreign policy had “momentous ill effects” that would “manifest decades later”, he fails Monroe as a bad president, assigning him a ludicrously low peace rating of 4 out of 20. If the Monroe Doctrine were flawed in theory, that would be one thing, but it’s not. It lends itself to abuse when taken selectively and exaggerating that selection.

A shrewd compromise

During the negotiations that resulted in the Missouri Compromise (1820), Monroe’s shrewd backstage maneuverings helped the country avoid a sectional crisis. In the end, it was agreed that Maine would be admitted as a free state, and Missouri as a slave state, in return for the South’s willingness to outlaw slavery in western territories above the 36°30′ north latitude line. That line opened present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma to slavery but prohibited it throughout the rest of the Louisiana Territory (land that would eventually be organized into nine states). Monroe signed the bill on 1820, and it settled the slavery question until thirty years later, in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. Monroe is to be commended for keeping the nation from civil war for a long time.

Other foreign policy

Monroe demilitarized the Great Lakes, the area of which had been ravaged by war. The negotiations had begun in 1816, when he was Secretary of State, and then concluded during the first months of his presidency. The Senate approved the Rush-Bagot Agreement (1818), which limited Great Britain and the U.S. to four ships in the Great Lakes, used primarily for revenue service, and allowed some use of the forts and garrisons around the lakes. Rush-Bagot created a peaceful border between the U.S. and British Canada.

Then there was the Oregon issue (click on the above map). The Treaty of 1818 ironed out fishing rights on the Columbia River, control of the fur trading station at Astoria, and joint control of Oregon. The agreement drew the northern U.S. boundary along the 49th parallel from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains. The U.S. and Britain agreed to joint control of the Oregon region for ten years, which allowed access to citizens of both nations.


When the War of 1812 finished (in 1815), the country enjoyed an economic boom under the remaining two years of Madison’s term. This had less to do with anything Madison did, and more with the industriousness of the American people, and the sudden open trade channels to the rest of the world. Monroe, on the other hand, managed to continue the post-war boom with excellent fiscal policies. He fought inflation and lowered the national debt. And when faced with the Panic of 1819 — the country’s first major depression, stemming from the decline of imports and exports and the fall of agricultural prices — his policies steered the country out of the depression and into prosperity again for the rest of his two terms. He is rated the fourth best president in terms of fiscal policy (after Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses Grant) by economists Vedder & Gallaway. Not just for his foreign policy, but for his economic policy, was this the Era of Good Feelings.


For the Missouri Compromise and the doctrine named after him, Monroe scores high marks, though not perfect. His doctrine is one of those great ideas in terms of original intent that lends itself to abuse. For prosperity his fiscal record speaks for itself. I dock him one point for approving tariffs, and another for not trying to do away with the Second National Bank, as his Jeffersonian beliefs by rights dictated. For liberty I dock him 4 points for his treatment of the Indians. By manifest destiny standards he wasn’t terrible (like Andrew Jackons and Martin Van Buren), but he did adopt the idea of forcing the Natives to move west, and giving them what was supposedly good land but wasn’t, which is what we today call ethnic cleansing. On whole James Monroe was a very good president, who presided in a time of harmony. Today we are long overdue for a Monroe-like kumbaya; I don’t foresee it happening in my lifetime.

Peace — 17/20
Prosperity — 18/20
Liberty — 16/20

TOTAL SCORE = 51/60 = Good

Terrence Malick Ranked

With Malick’s return to form last year, this ranking is overdue. I ignore the recent string of efforts that made me wonder if someone was ghost filming for him. To the Wonder (2012) explored the ethereality of love in what felt like a cheesy imitation of Malick’s style. Knight of Cups (2015) showed the excesses of Hollywood through the pain of an empty character. And Song to Song (2017) told of relationships in the music industry with nothing remotely interesting to say. On to the real Malick films.

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1. The Tree of Life. 2011. 5 stars. Like Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, this is a picture-perfect film attaining heights out of reach to all but the most gifted filmmakers. It spotlights an American Catholic family within a macrocosm of evolution, and an implied dialectic of nature vs. grace. If there ever was a case to be made for religionless Christianity, this is it. It pivots around a man reliving his childhood (in hindsight both wondrous and grim) while reflecting on his own place in the universe (negligible on one level, having everything to do with it on another). In particular, grace emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it’s its conceptual opposite), but something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. It’s an incredible film, with each frame depending on just the right camera angle, scoring, and particular subtleties around snippets of dialogue you can barely hear. And it ends on a spiritual apocalypse that can strike to the heart of even the most unyielding atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss, gelling splendidly with the evolutionary framework of the film. I’ve seen The Tree of Life more than any other Malick film, and have been turned by new surprises each time.

2. A Hidden Life. 2019. 5 stars. This is a return to form after the trilogy of cheap existential perfume (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song) which caused me to think Malick was either being imitated by an acolyte, or that he had lost his chops. A Hidden Life is the real deal, and a testimony to achieving a style and substance in perfect tandem. It’s about the unsung Austrian hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II, executed for it, and was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. Like classic Malick, geographical beauty is the canvas on which human ugliness is painted and interrogated. The Austrian backdrop is breathtaking; the plight of Jägerstätter and his wife almost hard to credit in a world that can yield such beauty. Most filmmakers would make this story about hot-button moral superiority: the courageous farmer vs. a regime of monstrous evil. But Malick doesn’t let us off the hook with the existential questions: Is it morally acceptable to allow one’s wife and children to suffer by opposing evil like the Nazis? The cosmos doesn’t care about righteousness.

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3. Badlands. 1973. 5 stars. Released the same year as The Exorcist, Malick’s first film is in every way a ’70s work par excellence, and one that only obliquely distinguishes itself as a Terrence Malick film. That’s not a bad thing: the ’70s were the Golden Age of filmmaking, and Badlands, like so many productions of this era, epitomizes the ideological emptiness of America after Vietnam and social upheaval of the ’60s. Like many artists of the time, Malick takes an amoral stance, refusing to either condemn his delinquent killers or cheer them on as anti-heroes. The visuals of the American Midwest landscape are breathtaking — on this point, the Malickian thumb-prints become evident — but Badlands is the one film on this list where characters don’t play second fiddle to nature, or at least that nature isn’t as much as character as it is in the others. Malick is clearly trying to underscore the way characters react and relate to meaningless violence, and what I find most disturbing about it is the tone of disinterest and nonchalance; the duo don’t relish killing, nor do they murder with any real purpose; it’s just a way of life that came naturally to them given their circumstances. Of the umpteen Bonnie-and-Clyde films, Badlands is my choice, with with Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise a close second.

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4. Days of Heaven. 1978. 5 stars. Quintessential Malick, gorgeous as it is simple, Days of Heaven preserves a still in every frame that you’d be proud to hang in your living room. As with Tree of Life, it’s the kind of film that takes just the right director to make work. Or least for me, because I’m big on character, and here the characters are kept at arm’s length even by Malick’s standards. Nature is of course the lead in most of his work, but in Days of Heaven the horses, wheat, locusts, and pastures eclipse Bill and Abby to the extent we almost don’t care a whit about their story with the dying farmer, yet remain hooked to the overall tapestry. There’s nothing romantic in this vision: it shows nature like it is, completely indifferent to humanity, a theme strongly revisited in The Thin Red Line. Interesting is that Malick reportedly trashed his own screen-play during the production, deciding instead to allow the actors to improvise and find the story in their own way. And it shows, because nothing feels rehearsed — it’s as if you’re watching something real through a painting come to life.

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5. The Thin Red Line. 1998. 4 ½ stars. There are two films I can’t avoid comparing to Saving Private Ryan, a film I never cared for. One is Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, for the suicidal attempt to take the hill; it retains a brutal intensity that Spielberg couldn’t match in the opening act of his overpraised film, much as he tried. The other is Malick’s Thin Red Line, for the time of its release, the same year as Spielberg’s but sadly overshadowed by it. This film laments warfare through naturalist philosophy, and it’s horrific and uplifting in a completely organic way (as opposed to the manipulative cheap-story way of Saving Private Ryan). I maintain that anti-war films have the strongest difficulty doing right by the viewer. They must get their message across loud and clear, but without resorting to college-campus screed, political innuendo, or hollow contrivances. Bergman’s Shame, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, and Malick’s Thin Red Line are my trilogy of exhibits proving this is possible. What Bergman did at the level of personal intimacy, and Kubrick did along the ladder of military hierarchy, Malick expands to the broadest level possible, examining life and death in cosmic terms, finding beauty in each, yet an undeniable rage at the way the latter is reached. It’s sheer genius.

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6. The New World. 2005. 3 ½ stars. For all its stunning aesthetic, there’s something fundamental about New World that irks me: this isn’t the way I like historicals. I don’t want figures like Pocahontas painted over Terrence Malick style, I want them delivered on a platter of artistic simplicity (as in A Man for all Seasons), induced documentary (as in Gospel According to St. Matthew), or even action-adventure brutality (as in Rob Roy). When nature is the main character — as is almost always the case in a Malick film — it distracts from what an historical epic should be about. Credit must be given for the way New World rescues Pocahontas from sissified Disney versions and portrays the love affair between her and Smith with subtle poetry. Most commendably, this isn’t a slam against the White Man, nor a condescending, racist reverence for fantasy “noble savages” (who must nonetheless be saved by a whitey who grows to loathe himself — per Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, ad nauseum). Objectively, there’s a lot to admire about this film. But I respect it from an emotional distance, because the historical genre is just not one I find suitable for Malick’s style. I’m not surprised that most rankings of Malick put it at bottom (above only the three duds that I’m not acknowledging on this list).