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For All Nails #231: An Opposing Viewpoint

By Johnny Pez



From the New Historian FN1
October 1972


Robert Sobel's Gilpinist Agenda

by Joan Kahn

Although it might seem that an Australian-born historian based in Taiwan would have sufficient distance from the passions dividing the North American continent to provide an objective account of the parallel development and interactions of the Confederation of North America and the United States of Mexico, Robert Sobel proves in his latest book that distance is no guarantee of objectivity. Despite being separated from North America by the width of the Pacific, Sobel is deeply enmeshed in the war of words that is being waged across the Arkansas, and he has produced a history of the two nations that is anything but objective.

Although he was born and raised in Tillotson, Australia, Robert Sobel's parents were North Americans from Indiana who emigrated to Australia in the 1920s. They were members of Tillotson's thriving expatriate community and maintained close ties with relatives in Riverside FN2 and St. Louis. This helps to explain Sobel's interest in North American business history, as revealed in works such as A Statistical Survey of North American Business, 1855-1910 (1957) and The Epic Age of North American Industry (1960). Since leaving Australia in 1961, Sobel has been a visiting scholar at Kinkaid University (1961-63), Associate Professor of History at Burgoyne University (1963-68), and a full Professor of History at the University of Taiwan (1968-present), which helps to explain why he came to write For Want of a Nail . . ., and why the history takes the form it does. Although For Want of a Nail... purports to be a dual history of the CNA and USM, Sobel's account of Mexican history seems curiously skewed, unless one understands that the Mexican chapters serve mainly as background for the emergence and rise to global prominence of Kramer Associates. Thus, it would be more accurate to describe Sobel's book as a dual history of the CNA and KA, with the USM merely an unavoidable adjunct to the history of the latter.

This explains why the foundation of the State of Jefferson and the early history of the USM are given short shrift. Sobel's chief interest in Jeffersonian and early Mexican history is to describe the economic and social conditions that gave rise to Bernard Kramer and his business partners, and led to the creation of Kramer Associates. Thus, there is no mention of such important figures as Lucas Alamán, Lorenzo de Zavala, or Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, and the role they played in the creation of the USM. Instead, one is left with the impression that Andrew Jackson created the USM single-handed, and was the only political leader of any consequence before the rise of Miguel Huddleston.

Likewise, the sections of the book dealing with the CNA rely heavily on Sobel's earlier works on North American business history and the career of Ezra Gallivan. The former colors the book's views on North American politics and labor history. Henry Gilpin's brutal suppression of the Grand Consolidated Union is described in almost glowing terms, while the devil's pact between the Northern Confederation's business leaders and the criminal Orange Order is glossed over. Meanwhile, Sobel's worshipful regard for Gallivan results in what is probably the book's most egregious omission: the lack of any mention of the woman suffrage campaign in the CNA. In vain will one search For Want of a Nail... for any mention of the Peekskill Convention, Emily Dickinson, Nora Biddle or Claire Addams. Nowhere will the reader find any mention of the People's Coalition's resolutions in support of woman suffrage, or -- most revealingly -- of Gallivan's twenty-year campaign of political maneuvering to prevent their implementation. Missing from the lengthy bibliography are Candice Evans' monumental The Struggle for Woman Suffrage or Edward J. Baker's The Unkept Promise. Although Sobel devotes four chapters to Gallivan's career as rising politician, Governor-General and gray eminence, nowhere will one find his most notorious utterance: "I'd sooner give the vote to Man's Best Friend than to Man's Worst Enemy."

Still, Sobel does at least mention the final triumph of woman suffrage in the CNA, albeit briefly, in an otherwise unrelated footnote devoted to electoral reforms, and with no mention made of the circumstances surrounding the event. The woman suffrage campaign in the USM fails to receive even this brief mention of the fruits of its victory. A reader unfamiliar with the USM could be forgiven for believing that Mexican women never gained the vote there, since Sobel never mentions the fact, much less details how it came about. John Quincy Adams is mentioned several times in his roles as Hamilton's envoi to President Morelos and Jackson's first Secretary of State, yet his far better-known mother merits no mention at all. Nor do we hear of the organization that bore her name, its forty-year struggle to win Mexico's women the vote, or its final triumph under Benito Hermión in 1893.

The Abigail Adams Brigade is only the most prominent victim of Sobel's narrow focus on the rise of Kramer Associates. Others include the settlement of Mexico del Norte's Great Bitter Lake by José Mendoza's Communion of All Saints, the brief political heyday of Eduardo Flanders' Contra Darwin Coalition, and the rise to power of the Prohibition League in Chiapas. We hear nothing of them from Sobel, but we do hear plenty about KA and the Kinkaid Canal, KA and the Great Northern War, KA and the fall of Benito Hermión, KA and the abolition of slavery. Sobel devotes an entire chapter to John Jackson's legal maneuverings and his transfer of KA's corporate headquarters from San Francisco to Luzon. The reader is invited to cheer along with Sobel as KA bests Fuentes in the 1920s, Silva in the 1930s and 1940s, and Mercator in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the era of the War Without War, the CNA's leaders are judged by a single simple standard: their attitude towards the awful threat posed by post-Kramer Mexico. Richard Mason is depicted as a fool because he does not regard the USM as a threat, while Perry Jay and Carter Monaghan are held up as exemplars of wisdom because they do. Meanwhile, KA's atomic blackmail of the USM (and, incidentally, the rest of the world) is regarded as an enlightened act of philanthropy, undertaken for the noblest of motives.

Less understandable than errors of omission and commission prompted by bias are errors that seem prompted by sheer carelessness. And while some of these can be laid at the feet of the Macmillan Company's lax copyeditors, such as the persistent mis-spellings of the names of José María Morelos and Carlos Concepción, and the erroneous population figures cited, some can only be the result of Professor Sobel's poor scholarship: failure to mention the incorporation of Hudson's Bay Company in the Confederations of Manitoba and Quebec; failure to mention Spain's re-acquisition of the Floridas from Great Britain in 1778; and failure to mention the clashes that led to the Alaska Treaty of 1824.

As is now customary when the historian of one country writes about another, For Want of a Nail... has appended to it a critique by Professor Frank Dana of the University of Mexico City. Like the history it examines, Professor Dana's critique is at least as interesting for what it leaves unsaid as for what it says. As a disciple of Miguel Alavarces, Dana actually finds himself in accord with much of Sobel's choice of subject matter. He approves of Sobel's decision to emphasize KA's role in Mexican history, though like Mark Antony he comes to bury Kramer Associates and not to praise them. Nothing is said in Dana's critique about Sobel's omissions of important events from the USM's history; instead, he confines himself to noting Sobel's pro-Kramer bias and remedying the matter by providing his own anti-Kramer bias.

What Dana does dispute is Sobel's assertion that the USM and CNA are, and always have been, deadly enemies, noting the long periods of mutual indifference between the two nations, and asserting that the current strained relations are a product of postwar geopolitics. This suggests that Dana is not as familiar as Sobel with the anti-Mexican mindset introduced into the CNA by Gilpin, and that he is either unaware of or prefers to downplay the influence of Gilpinism on North American foreign policy, both past and present.

One facet of Gilpinism that Dana has no difficulty recognizing in For Want of a Nail... is the book's central thesis. Like other Gilpinist historians, Sobel sees the CNA and USM as polar opposites. He regards the revolutionary tradition that gave rise to the North American Rebellion as a wholly negative and destructive one, and its incorporation into the USM dooms that nation to an unhappy future of instability and extremism.

Along with its Gilpinist perspective, For Want of a Nail... also serves to advance a Gilpinist agenda. Sobel recounts the histories of the CNA and USM to make clear the threat to civilization embodied in the revolutionary heritage of Adams and Jefferson. It is a threat, Sobel seeks to show, of such awful magnitude as to justify any countermeasures taken, of whatever severity -- whether the target is the foreign menace of the United States of Mexico or the domestic menace of the Peace and Justice Party.


Joan Kahn
Brooklyn City, CNA
12 August 1972


Miss Kahn is the author of The Unknown History of the Hermión Assassination: The Gilpin Connection and The Secret History of the Kinkaid Assassination. She is currently at work on a history of the ousters of Ezra Gallivan and Benito Hermión.


Proceed to FAN #232: Strange Bedfellows.

Proceed to 4 October 1972: Ireland's End.

Proceed to Joan Kahn: Conspiracy Theory.

Proceed to Robert Sobel: For Want of a Fact.

Return to For All Nails.

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