A Ban on Banks: Wisconsin’s Radical 1846 Constitution

· Posted by Joshua in History

Political leaders have been debating for months over how to deal with the banking-induced financial crisis currently seizing the world, but controversy over banking is nothing new. Wisconsin’s history demonstrates this vividly. In 1846, as Wisconsin was preparing for statehood, a political convention met in Madison to author the state constitution. The draft this convention created never took effect—citizens overwhelmingly rejected it in an 1847 referendum, and statehood was delayed until a second constitution was approved the next year. The first proposal, voters thought, was simply too radical. Two of its radical provisions dealt with debt and banking.

A clip of the manuscript showing Article X of the 1846 Wisconsin Constitution.

Banking provisions in the rejected 1846 Wisconsin Constitution. (Digitized by the Wisconsin Historical Society)

One section of the rejected constitution, the Homestead Provision, was designed to protect family homes from being seized to cover debt. An even more radical proposal, Article 10, actually banned any bank from doing business within Wisconsin’s borders.

The Homestead Provision, based on provisions in the earlier Texas Constitution, would have exempted the family home and forty acres, to a maximum value of one thousand dollars (then a substantial sum), from being seized to repay contractual debts. The second constitution replaced this with a more vague statement exempting only “a reasonable amount of property” from seizure. Currently, Wisconsin law provides an exemption for property worth up to $40,000, but it does not apply to mortgages or debts incurred to purchase or improve the home.

The idea to forbid banking in Wisconsin was proposed by Edward G. Ryan, a Democrat elected to the constitutional convention from Racine. The convention approved his proposal by a 79-27 vote, and the article they passed read like this:

Article X: On Banks and Banking

Section I: There shall be no bank of issue within this state.

Section II: The legislature shall not have power to authorize or incorporate, by any general or special law, any bank or other institution having any banking power or privilege, or to confer upon any corporation, institution, person or persons any banking power or privilege.

Section III: It shall not be lawful for any corporation, institution, person or persons within this state, under any pretense or authority, to make or issue any paper money, note, bill, certificate, or other evidence of debt whatever intended to circulate as money.

Section IV: It shall not be lawful for any corporation within this state under any pretense or authority, to exercise the business of receiving deposits of money, making discounts, or buying or selling bills of exchange, or to do any other banking business whatever.

Section V: No branch or agency of any bank or banking institution of the United States, or of any State or Territory within or without the United States shall be established or maintained within this state.

Section VI: It shall not be lawful to circulate within this state, after the year one thousand eight hundred and forty seven, any paper money, note, bill, certificate or other evidence of debt whatever intended to circulate as money, issued without this state, of any denomination less than ten dollars, or after the year one thousand eight hundred and forty nine, of any denomination less than twenty dollars.

Section VII: The legislature shall, at its first session after the adoption of this constitution, and from time to time thereafter as may be necessary, enact adequate penalties for the punishment of all violations and evasions of the provisions of this article.1

Wisconsin’s politicians were willing to ban banking because they had lived through decades of bank-related economic turmoil. In 1816, the U.S. Congress had delegated management of federal finance to a private corporation, the Second Bank of the United States, but in 1819 and 1834, the bank’s policies were blamed for causing recessions. The congressional charter for the bank expired in 1836, but in its stead, unregulated “wildcat banks” began offering easy loans and printing money, as was legal at the time. Eager for profit, the banks expanded rapidly, making too much money available far too quickly. The resulting inflation triggered a depression that lasted from 1837 to 1843, unparalleled in severity until the Great Depression. When Wisconsin’s founding politicians met to write the constitution in 1846, these events were still fresh in mind.

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Metaphorically Speaking

· Posted by Joshua in Language

I adore the name we’ve given our galaxy. The Milky Way—so delicious! It escaped the strange titles given to our near neighbors like Andromeda, Triangulum, and the ever-romantic Large Magellanic Cloud. Milky Way is much more homey. It’s very pastoral, the sort of name you’d expect for a meandering country lane that runs between the co-op creamery and the local dairy farms. It’s also what we’ve called our galaxy for thousands of years. Indeed, it’s inherent in the very word “galaxy,” which was coined in ancient Greece and spelled γαλαξίας: gamma, alpha, lambda, alpha, xi, iota, alpha, sigma; galaxias. This is derived from the root word γάλα, gala, milk. So this is how we, as meager earthlings, can begin to make sense of the great cosmic swirling mass of stars 193.1 quadrillion times the mass of our own planet—by expressing it in terms of a streak of milk against the nighttime sky. There’s something incredibly humble and human about that.

Humans are always expressing meaning through metaphor, to simplify complexities otherwise impossible for any but the experts to understand. Such everyday figurative language fills our lexicon. Computing, as you might expect, is a field full of these metaphors. You probably enlisted the aid of a mouse to get to this page—not a furry rodent, but a sophisticated piece of computer hardware that makes up part of the human-machine interface. You might be thinking of this website as a page, but it’s really data rendered to your screen in an array of lighted pixels, and it’s unlike anything you’d find in a book. We talk about going to web sites, as if they were locations to explore, even though the data really is being sent to us while we sit still. People might call this surfing the net, but it’s not at all like what they do on the beaches of California. There’s simply no way to understand things as complex as a virtual world comprised of nothing but electrons, except to make metaphors and draw analogies.

On one hand, I think this aspect of human thought and language reveals the limit to our status as “intelligent” beings. To understand anything even remotely outside our normal experiences, we have to resort to this childlike and rather innocent scheme of naming things after what we’re familiar with. It shows how, for all our modern scientific arrogance, we still understand very little of the world for what it really is.

Simultaneously, however, it is a tremendous asset that we can just reuse simple ideas to conceptualize about complicated things that would, otherwise, remain forever outside our grasp. This capacity is in fact the very root of our intelligence and the very mechanism of language. Once we know a little, we can learn things not by what they are, but simply by what they’re like—and thus, from our own experiences, we can build a mental model of the universe that allows us to do very real things, from the everyday experience of empathizing with another’s thoughts to the very complex operation of sending telescopes to space to better understand the galaxy, our Milky Way. We do this all by using analogical frames of reference. We do it all by speaking, and thinking, in metaphors.

Wisconsin’s Christmas Past

· Posted by Joshua in History

Tractor Ornaments in a Christmas Tree

Christmas Tree Ornaments

A century ago, the city of Appleton, Wisconsin, celebrated Christmas on a grand scale. It was 1908, and for the first time, the city had decorated its streets with electric lights for the holiday. The occasion was not unlike our observance of Christmas today: bright, extravagant, and unrelentingly commercial. Summing up the event on December 31, the Appleton Post boasted that “The illumination of College Avenue by the Appleton merchants, together with the notoriety given to the town by the possession of the biggest Christmas tree in the world, and not only the biggest, but the prettiest, put the merchants of nearby towns to their wits’ end to keep their trade from drifting over to Appleton.”1

Christmas in Wisconsin wasn’t always such a colossal affair. Indeed, the holiday hasn’t always been celebrated here. The American Indians who first occupied the land had their own traditions, beliefs, and ceremonies. The first people who celebrated Christmas in what became Wisconsin were French and British traders who arrived after the seventeenth century. Few of these first Christian arrivals were especially devout. “We sometimes kept Sundays; but whether on the right day was doubtful,” recalled Thomas Gummersall Anderson, a British trader who traveled Wisconsin widely in the early 1800s.2 Despite their relaxed attitude towards religion, Anderson and others like him tried to retain their Christmas traditions as best as they could in an unfamiliar land. Anderson’s memoir, written just a few years before his death in 1875, records two Christmas feasts gone terribly awry on the Wisconsin frontier.

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Welcome, Winter

· Posted by Joshua in Nature

December in Wisconsin

December in Wisconsin

There is something unavoidably alluring to me about the cold. I don’t know what it is. For some reason, though, I’ve just always been more apt to build a snow fort than a sand castle. The heat makes my spirit melt, I have the soul of a wax man, but the cold is different. I find it at once refreshing, piercing, unbearable, intense, and thrilling. I sport with the cold. With almost masochistic pleasure, I subject my toes and fingers to its sting and brave its challenge, giddy to survive its might. Cold is power! It is the power to invigorate or to destroy, the power to transform the world into something alien and uninhabitable, but something still simultaneously beautiful. I cannot help but be transfixed.

I awoke this morning to the sound of the wind beating against my bedroom wall. The weatherman had said yesterday that it could start gusting up to twenty-five miles an hour. My bed was cold, and the blankets wrapped around me felt papery thin. When the fog of sleep finally cleared from my eyes I could see three foot snowdrifts outside my window. It was the kind of morning that would make anybody want to stay in bed. Anybody, that is, except for people like me. Enlightened or deranged, I decided to go hiking.

No matter that the wind was so fierce, the snow so deep, or the temperature so cold — the thermometer in my kitchen window read ten degrees below zero, Fahrenheit — I wanted to celebrate the winter solstice by heading straight out into Wisconsin’s deep December freeze. So, I quickly donned my winter gear and stepped outside into the snow. Now my adventure could begin, and I made to awe myself with winter’s power and beauty for as long as I could stand it.

It’s amazing how much bigger the world seems when the snow and wind impede every step between one place and another. Though I stayed outside for more than an hour, I only managed to trudge over a few of the hills and valleys that make up my family’s farm. Still, I discovered some lovely things. In the wooded glen, sheltered from the wind, a defiantly unfrozen stream still flowed gently between the snowbanks. On the barren ridgetop above, the wind whipped enough snow into the air to stain the blue sky gray, and the sun struggled to illuminate the bleak, frozen world spread out beneath it. Luckily, I found that I could still use a camera while wearing gloves, and the few scenes that I captured with my numb fingers will finish this story far more effectively than my amateur prose.

Take a look at the pictures.

I’ll be back with another post before Christmas.

Glimpses of December in Wisconsin

· Posted by Joshua in Nature

The first fifteen photos here were taken on the morning of the December 21, the 2008 Winter Solstice — it was a very chilly hike. The last twelve shots were taken a few days later on Christmas Eve. You may copy and reuse these photographs for free under a Creative Commons license (see terms below).

Creative Commons License

All of the photographs in this gallery, “Glimpses of August in Wisconsin,” are available to copy, adapt, modify, and distribute under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Please attribute Joshua Wachuta as creator of the original photographs.

See my other photo galleries.

The Change We Seek

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines

The November 5, 2008, Washington Post cover announcing Barack Obama's election victory.

Cover of the Washington Post
November 5, 2008.

On November 4, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America. His election was historic, not only because of the racial barriers it shattered, but also because this election marks the end of the longest, costliest, and most-watched presidential contest in American history. The tremendous interest in this campaign, both in America and abroad, are a testament to the global desire to embark upon a new course in world affairs. It is unsurprising, then, that Barack Obama was able to campaign and win on a platform of change. Indeed, it was this message—this promise of change and hope—that drew such massive and emotional crowds to Mr. Obama’s campaign.

Following the election on Tuesday, the largest crowd to date gathered in Chicago to celebrate Mr. Obama’s victory. This was a momentous event, but the conclusion to this election must not mark an end to the interest, involvement, and spirit that went into the campaign. The president-elect himself acknowledged as much while delivering his victory speech:

This victory alone is not the change we seek—it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.

No other portion of Mr. Obama’s speech can rival the importance of these few sentences. We must not rest contented simply out of the knowledge that the election is over and that a new president has been chosen. Regardless of political affiliation, anyone who really seeks change must do more than simply vote once in every four years. It is not enough to merely expend this quadrennial effort and then wait lazily in the interim for the officials we’ve elected to fix our problems. Instead, we must take an active role in the direction our country takes.

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Music Everywhere

· Posted by Joshua in Arts

I am wearing headphones. Music is playing in my ears. The track is “Far East Sweet” by The Bruces, but that isn’t important. After all, there are a few thousand tracks on my mp3 player. Whenever I’m in the mood for some music, I can just scroll through the choices. It doesn’t matter who I want to listen to: Bob Wills, Queen, Devotchka, the Packway Handle Band—wherever I go, they’re all ready and waiting in my coat pocket.

My situation is hardly unusual. It seems there is a wealth of music waiting at everyone’s fingertips today. This isn’t just because of mp3 players. There are also televisions, computers, car stereos, cell phones, and the ubiquitous speakers in malls, restaurants, and department stores. Music is so common now as to be nearly inescapable. From the moment we wake up to the melody of an alarm clock until the moment we turn off the TV or stereo before bed, we find ourselves working, studying, playing, driving, dining, shopping, and even exercising to a soundtrack that almost never completely fades.

This hyper-abundance of music is a remarkably new phenomenon. Most of the music formats people are familiar with today didn’t exist a few decades ago. The ability to record and replay music itself wasn’t realized until 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the first practical phonograph. Before this invention, it was impossible to duplicate a musical performance. Every musical rendition was unique, and the availability of a particular performance was limited to those people who inhabited the same time and place as the performers.

The advent of recording technology changed this by enabling people to duplicate individual performances as often as they wanted, so long as they had a copy of a recording and the equipment needed to play it. In other words, musical performances were no longer limited to a unique time and place, but were instead limited to technological availability. As technology has improved over the last century, both sound recordings and the devices that play them have become inexpensive and highly portable. This has allowed sound recording technology to proliferate widely, ensuring that recorded music music is are now available to virtually everyone, anywhere and anytime.

Our age of unprecedented musical abundance has led to many changes in the way people use, appreciate, and value music.

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Walking Among A Crowd

· Posted by Joshua in Miscellany

A Crowd of Walking Stick Figures

I’m walking, slowly, on a campus sidewalk. Around me, others are walking too. They are walking faster than I am, not swiftly, but steadily passing me as they go hither and thither about their days. There are many of them, and most of them are moving together, as one. They flow down the sidewalk together as if a liquid, occasionally damming up behind an obstacle before finally funneling through doors and filtering into their countless destinations. I am only a stone in their river, and as they wash past me on all sides, I too am prodded slowly forward along their course.

I begin to walk faster, until I, too, am one with the liquid mass. It is a new world. At my own pace I had been but one among many, but now we all walk together, a thousand chattering friends in the great hall under the sky. Our conversations come with us as we go; we share tales of the day thus far and make plans for the night to come. We smile and joke and laugh, and we become oblivious to all of our surroundings. It is almost as if we, the walking, were still, and the world was moving briskly beneath our feet.

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· Posted by Joshua in Arts

Approaching Sunset Over Chequamegon Bay

Approaching Sunset Over Chequamegon Bay

We are all haunted. Ghosts line the edges of our rooms, staring at us from the walls, emerging from old drawers and rising from the pages of our books. But we take our ghosts for granted now. Indeed, we see them every day. They are our images of moments gone by, moments that have morphed to memories, memories which are ever tossed and turned in our minds, until, like a stone in a river, what was once sharp is worn smooth and dull. Then it is impossible to be sure whether something once undeniably real and alive was ever really there, or whether it was merely a flash of imagination. Yet the ghosts linger, vivid as ever. The ghosts remind us. What is a ghost, but a photograph?

A photograph is not a moment returned from the dead. A photograph is just a sign, a shadow, a window onto a time and place that once was, but is no more. You can see the scene, the place, the person, and the moment. The memories come rushing back. Still, you can’t go back, you can only peer, hopelessly, through the window. You can touch the picture, but you cannot feel it. The ghost is ethereal. There is no cool wind rushing through your hair as once there was, no dirt squishing beneath your toes. You cannot hear the birds; you cannot smell the flowers; you cannot look around, side to side, up, down, behind. A photograph is only a ghost.

They ought to seem like something from another world. Hold the button, wait for the flash, and watch as the scene is spirited into view on Polaroid. Then seal it in an album, show it to a friend, transfer a memory from one mind to another. A scene that passed before my eyes last week is now visible to you, though you had never been there to see it. Now my ghosts haunt your mind, and even after I am gone, these ghosts may linger, to become the subjects of stories that endure. You never felt this wind, this dirt, never heard these birds or smelled these flowers yourself. So you imagine. You imagine the scene beyond the frame, and legends are born.

These are my ghosts.

(You can also access the galleries via the “Photos” link on the left sidebar).

Glimpses of August in Wisconsin

· Posted by Joshua in Arts, Nature

These photos were taken in August 2008 at a variety of locations, including at my family’s farm, at Madeline Island in far northern Wisconsin, at Prairie du Chien, and looking over the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi River from Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa. You may copy and reuse these photographs for free under a Creative Commons license (see terms below).

Creative Commons License

All of the photographs in this gallery, “Glimpses of August in Wisconsin,” are available to copy, adapt, modify, and distribute under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Please attribute Joshua Wachuta as creator of the original photographs.

See my other photo galleries.