The Federal Republic of Central America

One Real Coin of the Federal Republic of Central America

Between 1823 and 1840, what we know of the countries of Central America was a single country, with the following two exceptions:

  • British Honduras (now Belize) has never officially been recognized by Guatemala.
  • Panama did not exist as a separate country, but was a part of the Republic of Colombia.

In 1839, a young American by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was appointed by President Martin Van Buren to be a special ambassador to the unified Federal Republic of Central America. The only problem was that, by the time Stephens and his artist companion Frederick Catherwood landed in Central America, the Federal Republic was in the process of splitting apart.

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852)

Stephens’s main interest was to visit the Mayan ruins scattered around Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico—but going as a plenipotentiary of the United States was a big plus, especially since the countries of Central America were coming apart like a cheap suit.

I have just finished re-reading Volume i of Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán. The only ruins Stephens and Catherwood were able to visit before presenting their credentials to the government were in Copán, Honduras.  Most of the rest of that volume concerns the efforts of the two to find the government, which Stephens does in El Salvador, quite by accident:

The next day I made a formal call upon Señor Vigil [Vice President of the Republic]. I was in a rather awkward position. When I left Guatimala [sic] in search of a government, I did not expect to meet it on the road. In that state I had heard but one side [that of Guatemalan rebel General Carrera]; I was just beginning to hear the other. If there was any government, I had treed it. Was it the real thing or was it not? In Guatimala they said it was not; here they said it was. It was a knotty question. I was in no great favor in Guatimala, and in endeavouring to play a safe game I ran the risk of being hustled by all parties. In Guatimala they had no right to ask for my credentials, and took offence because I did not present them; here, if I refused, they had the right to consider it an insult.

As I read Stephens, I was reminded of how great some of the 19th century U.S. historians were. Not only Stephens, but also William H. Prescott (History of the Conquest of Mexico), Francis Parkman (the volumes of France and England in North America), and John Lothrop Motley (The Rise of the Dutch Republic). They are unfortunately not read much today, but I am convinced they are, in their own field, among the lights of 19th century American literature.

 

Serendipity: Basil II and Trump

Byzantine Emperor Basil II, the Bulgar-Slayer

Today, I was reading Michael Psellus’ Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (aka The Chronographia), written at some point in the 11th Century A.D. We know that the current occupant of the White House has made a practice of erasing every one of his predecessor Barack Obama’s accomplishments. Apparently, this was not the first time this happened. Michael Psellus tells us how the Emperor Basil II decided to erase the work of his long-time advisor, the eunuch Basil Parakoimomenus.

He gave the subject much thought, and it was only after long vacillation that he finally made up his mind. Once the decision was taken, however, he dismissed the parakoimomenus and deposed him at one blow. What made it worse was the fact that this change in the latter’s fortunes was not softened by any sign of respect. In fact, the emperor’s action was incredibly cruel, for he shipped him off into exile.

Nor did this disgrace prove to be the end of Basil’s troubles. Rather was it the prelude to further misfortunes, for the emperor next proceeded to review the events of the reign since he acceded to the throne and the parakoimomenus began to govern the empire. He examined the various measures that had been taken during all that period. Whatever happened to contribute to his own (the emperor’s) welfare, or to the good of the state, was allowed to remain on the statutes. [Trump was not that discriminating.] All those decrees, on the other hand, which referred to the granting of favours or positions of dignity, were now rescinded. The former, the emperor contended, had been approved by himself; of the latter, he knew nothing. In everything he strove to bring about the eunuch’s downfall and disaster. For example, the parakoimomenus had built a magnificent monastery in honour of Basil the Great, a monastery that bore his own name too. It had been constructed on a massive scale, at great cost of labour, and it combined different styles of architecture with beauty. Moreover, the greater part of the material used in its building had been obtained from generous and voluntary contributions. The emperor now wished to raze this edifice to the ground.

 

A Forty-Year Labor of Love

The Eleven Volumes of the Durants’ The Story of Civilization

If you’ve walked into a used bookstore within the last half century, you’ve no doubt seen the volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization. Many have bought the complete set, only to use it to weight their bookshelves to keep them from blowing away in the wind. I myself own just seven of the volumes, and by the end of the month, I will have finished reading three of them:

  • The Life of Greece, Volume II (1939)
  • The Reformation, Volume VI (1957)—I am currently two-thirds of the way to completion
  • The Age of Napoleon, Volume XI (1975)

Instead of berating the authors for having produced a coffee-table set that is large enough to crush many coffee tables, I am amazed to find that the volumes I have read are superb introductions to the periods they cover. They cover not only the events, but the leading characters, changes in the culture of the mostly European countries, and the main art and literary trends.

When reading history books, we usually settle on a small slice of a place and time and trust that we will catch up on the general trends. The Durants go particularly deep into the period between 1500 and 1815, which accounts for six of the volumes. I can vouch for the fact that The Life of Greece covers in one volume hundreds of years of Greek history, from Homeric times to the Roman takeover.

Will and Ariel Durant

The Durants provide detailed bibliographies, footnotes, and alphabetic indexes in all the volumes, which make them excellent references for delving into sources and further details.

It is sometimes too easy to pooh-pooh books that have been honored by such organizations as The Book of the Month Club. Fortunately, they weren’t always far off the mark. Certainly not in the case of the Durants. Do not make the mistake of ignoring these splendid books.

 

 

Getting to Hello

When You Answer the Telephone, What Do You Say?

I owe this post to the folks at Futility Closet, one of my favorite websites. Apparently, the word “Hello” has a recent history. Although it was Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone, it was Thomas Edison who dictated what we said when we answered the call. In August 1877, he wrote a letter to the president of a telegraph company that was planning to introduce the telephone to Pittsburgh: “Friend David, I don’t think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think? EDISON.”

Edison’s thinking was that a bell was not necessary: The word “Hello” was sufficient to get the other party’s attention. It seems that we got the ringer anyway—as well as the word Hello.

It’s far better than what Alexander Graham Bell was planning to use as a greeting: “Hoy! Hoy!” By the time the caller stopped laughing, the call recipient would have hung up in frustration.

Nowadays, most of the calls I receive begin not with a greeting, but a click as some sort of machinery cranks up the robocall script. Perhaps I should just say, “Hoy! Hoy!” and hang up at once.

 

When It All Began

This Is the Earliest Shooter Incident That I Can Remember

August 1, 1966 came during a strange period in my life. Within six weeks, I would be in a coma at Fairview General Hospital in Cleveland while a team of doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with me. My family physician, Michael J. Eymontt did not have access to CAT Scans or MRI, but he was an endocrinologist and figured that something might be going on with my pituitary gland.

He was right. I read about the Austin, Texas shooting incident in the Cleveland Press and Plain Dealer. Never before had I or my family seen such a gratuitous act of violence toward the innocent. Charles Whitman first killed his mother and his wife, and then took guns to the tower on the University of Texas campus and opened fire at random people who were just going about their business. In an hour and a half, he killed thirteen people and wounded thirty-one. Too bad he didn’t have access to the hi-tech military weaponry that was used in the Las Vegas mélée by Stephen Paddock.

When I was recovering from surgery in the hospital, the news came out that Charles Whitman had had a brain tumor. Okay, so did I, but I didn’t kill anybody. That’s a pretty lame excuse.

The Tower at the University of Texas from Which Charles Whitman Fired His Shots

So now we’ve come full circle with another Texas shooting—one in which half the victims were children, at a church no less!  Between the two incidents, I would have trouble counting how many mentally twisted gun collectors decided to take it out on innocent people. It’s becoming a very popular way for gun freaks to commit murder and suicide at the same time. Thanks to the NRA, there is no danger that Hell will ever be underpopulated with American sickos.

Two Disasters

Close-Up of Beer

This is a tale of two disasters, separated from each other by a little more than a century, and oddly representative of the countries in which they took place. After the horrendous hurricanes that destroyed so much of Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean—and the earthquakes that devastated parts of Mexico—I began to think of some of the strangers disasters that have befallen man. My source for both is FutilityCloset.Com, one of my favorite sources for odd facts.

The first disaster occurred on October 17, 1814, in London during the Napoleonic Wars. That’s when a giant vat bull of beer at the St. Giles brewery ruptured with such force that it ruptured many of the adjoining vats. Within minutes, some 323,000 gallons of the stuff that makes Englishmen happy flowed into the West End. That day, it turns out there was little happiness: Eight people were killed “by drowning, injury, poisoning by porter fumes, or drunkenness.” Basements were flooded, and several tenements collapsed from the onslaught of the brew.

What Can One Say?

It is a hundred five years later across the ocean in Boston, Massachusetts. The date is Wednesday, January 15, 1919. As Wikipedia describes the event:

“A muffled roar burst suddenly upon the air,” wrote the Boston Herald. “Mingled with the roar was the clangor of steel against steel and the clash of rending wood.”

The tank collapsed, sending a giant wave of molasses sweeping through the North End. Even in the January cold, the wave would have been 8 to 15 feet high and traveled at 35 mph. It broke the girders of the elevated railway, lifted a train off its tracks, and tore a firehouse from its foundation. Twenty-one people stickily drowned, and 150 were injured. Cleanup took six months; one victim wasn’t found for 11 days.

The 2.3 million gallons of molasses that caused the flood was being used to convert it to grain alcohol. Maybe so, but it kind of stands to reason that the American disaster involved a whole lot of sticky, sweet stuff.

Two Presidents Reconsidered

Entrance to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

I have come to enjoy visiting Presidential Libraries. The two in Southern California—those of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon—have been visited by me several times. When Presidents Nixon and Reagan occupied the White House, I was dead set against them. I voted for neither of them and, in fact, threatened to leave the country if Reagan were elected.

Today, Martine and I spent a few hours at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in the Simi Valley. It’s funny how time tends to remove sharp edges. Now I look back and see a gifted speaker who sincerely believed in what he was saying and who was able to convince listeners of his sincerity. Even though his presidency fell apart somewhat toward the end with the whole Iran-Contra negotiation; even though the whole Savings & Loan fiasco was the result of a horrible miscalculation; even though his mind couldn’t wrap itself around that truck bomb in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. military; even though he trusted that sanctimonious snake-in-the-grass Colonel Oliver North—he did not turn out to be an irredeemably awful president like the Current Occupant.

Probably what I liked most about Reagan were the sentiments expressed in his epitaph: “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” I could forgive a man who believed that, and I do not think that Ronald Wilson Reagan was given to lying.

Earlier this year, Martine and I paid another visit to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda. As President, Nixon may well have been paranoid, but he was also brilliant. The videos of his speeches were articulate and, overall, impressive. Granted that he was not at his best after the Watergate break-in forced him to go into defensive mode, he succeeded in ending the Viet Nam War and opening Communist China. Both were considerable accomplishments, and could not be altogether diminished by the whole Watergate fiasco.

Also, there was a real humility about the man. His presidential library also includes the house in which he was born which was built by his father from a kit. It was as humble a house as any log cabin. And directly outside it is where Richard and Pat Nixon are buried.