Virginia legislator: ‘My War with the Eastern Box Turtle’

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department photo)

Dear Friend

“What do you have against turtles?”

Today I did something I never imagined I would have to do when I was elected to serve in the Senate of Virginia. I spoke and voted against legislation to make the box turtle as our state reptile (passed 24-15). That has led to some asking me, “What do you have against turtles?” It’s not a question I anticipated being asked this session, but it’s one I’ve heard more than a few times in the last few days.

For the record, I don’t have anything against the Eastern Box Turtle or terrapins in general, so there’s no need to speculate.

No, I don’t object to turtles; I object to wasting time on trivialities while seriously contemplating pushing back the budget for some later date. I have nothing against the Eastern Box, but I do have a problem with the amount of time we’ve spent this session on bills that have nothing to do with making our Commonwealth a better place, to say nothing of getting our economy back on track. This bill is just one isolated, albeit absurd (okay, even slightly amusing), example of a larger trend.

Is designating a state reptile really worth our time? We already have a state beverage, state insect, and a state gold mining interpretive center – presumably to distinguish it from the pretenders. We even have a state fossil, an extinct scallop.

I concede that Virginia trails other states in designations. We don’t have a state shrub, a state grass, or even a state donut. But if we’re to pick a state reptile, how to choose? Sure, the Eastern Box Turtle is a fine choice, but there’s something to be said for the endangered stinkpot turtle, too. And who doesn’t have a soft spot for other reptilian species, like the yellow-bellied slider, the common five-lined skink (and, of course, some would undoubtedly suggest politicians and lawyers)?

You know, we have a state shell as well. Increasingly, though, I think our state shell should be the one some in government are hiding under they we wait for the economic ill winds to pass us by. One of the counties I represent has an 11.7% unemployment rate, and they’re not alone. People are struggling to make ends meet across the Commonwealth, and they need the General Assembly to redouble its efforts to promote economic recovery, not ignore the problem in the hopes that it will just go away.

So nothing against the turtle – but if I had my way, he’d have to get in line.

Mark Obenshain
Virginia State Senator

Published in: on February 10, 2009 at 2:19 pm  Comments (10)  

Rare Horse Dies at National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center

File photo of a Przewalski's Horse. This wild horse was declared extinct in the wild in the 1970s. National Zoo scientists are part of an international effort to preserve the species. Photo by Jessie Cohen, NZP photographer.

A six-month-old, male Przewalski’s horse died at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va. Friday, Jan. 30 due to a fractured neck. The cause of injury remains undetermined-staff closely observing the horse in the moments preceding its death did not notice any unusual behavior that would have caused the injury.

Staff directed the colt into a chute system leading into a trailer which would transport him and a six-month-old filly to a new pasture on Friday afternoon. The animal walked onto the trailer-as it had many times previously-without exhibiting any signs of stress or injury. Following protocol, staff checked on the animals a few minutes after they entered the trailer. Staff found the colt unconscious, but it was still breathing. The horse was quickly transported to the Center’s veterinary hospital where veterinarians attempted to resuscitate him, but he died a short while later. A subsequent necropsy report showed that the horse had sustained a fracture of the fourth cervical vertebrate in his neck.

The colt was born in July, sired by a 9-year-old stallion named Frog, the most genetically valuable Przewalski’s horse in the North American breeding program. Its mother came from Europe to breed with Frog in order to boost the breeding program. The Przewalski’s horse is a horse species native to China and Mongolia that was declared extinct in the wild in 1970. Currently, there are approximately 1,500 of these animals maintained in zoological institutions throughout the world and in several small reintroduced populations in Asia.

The filly that was also being transported sustained no injury and is in good health.

From a release.

Published in: on February 2, 2009 at 4:20 pm  Comments (4)  

Mississippi’s Petal High Band marches into history

With a stopover at Warren County’s Skyline High for a final practice

By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report

From left, Principal Trombonist E.J. Miller, Flute Section Leader Ericka Morris, Drum Major Greg Barr and Color Guard Captain Josie Taylor. Photo by Roger Bianchini.

From left, Principal Trombonist E.J. Miller, Flute Section Leader Ericka Morris, Drum Major Greg Barr and Color Guard Captain Josie Taylor. Photo by Roger Bianchini.

Prepare yourselves for “a memory of a lifetime” was the general message of Warren County and Town of Front Royal officials greeting a high school band from Petal, Mississippi, to Front Royal and Skyline High School on Jan. 19. While school was closed for Martin Luther King Day, school administrators opened two-year-old Skyline High’s doors and grounds to allow the Petal High School Marching Band a final outdoor rehearsal prior to their appearance in the Presidential Inaugural Parade the following day.

And while the Petal Marching Band is no stranger to honors, state championships and appearances around the nation, several band members we spoke to seemed to realize the import of the approaching moment to themselves, their band, school and nation.

Preparing for the cold - whats that tuba doing on your head? Photo by Roger Bianchini.

Preparing for the cold - what's that tuba doing on your head? Photo by Roger Bianchini.

“This is the biggest thing since Kennedy’s Inauguration,” Principal Trombonist E.J. Miller observed of the mood of many younger Americans.  For while President John F. Kennedy may be ancient history to the teens of the early 21st Century, his well reported appeal to the nation’s youth of the early 1960’s rings familiar to their own generation’s emotional connections to President Obama.

“It’s a true blessing for me to be in this organization and to see the President and to be able to march in the parade. To be in the band selected out of all the different bands in Mississippi is a true blessing and an honor,” 17-year-old T.J. Taylor said as he stood with fellow baritone player Joy Grimsley preparing to brave temperatures 30-some degrees colder than characteristic of their home town.

Petal High Assistant Band Director Chris Word is greeted by Warren County Administrator Doug Stanley and Schools Superintendent Pam McInnis. Photo by Roger Bianchini.

Petal High Assistant Band Director Chris Word is greeted by Warren County Administrator Doug Stanley and Schools Superintendent Pam McInnis. Photo by Roger Bianchini.

We asked Trombonist Miller if the cold and snow might dampen the Mississippi band’s spirits come inauguration day.
“It doesn’t matter. My mind’s not going to be focused on that, my mind is going to be focused on how awesome it is to be there,” Miller enthused, along with Flute Section Leader Ericka Morris, who agreed wholeheartedly that the weather would be irrelevant to the events of the following day for the Petal contingent.

And while the temperatures on the 19th hovered slightly below freezing throughout the day, as if on cue as the band left the comfortable confines of Skyline High’s auditorium around 1:45 p.m., the clouds lifted, snow flurries evaporated and the sun even peeked out to cast a soft glow as the 158-strong Petal Marching Band and Color Guard warmed to their task in the Skyline football stadium parking lot.

As the brass and reeds warmed both their lips and instruments at one end of the lot and the drumline beat a steady rhythm at the other end, it quickly became apparent why Petal High was one of 70 marching bands chosen to participate in the 56th US Presidential inauguration from a pool of 1,300 applicants.

“They are better than my high school band already and they’re only warming up,” Dan McDermott whispered to me in case any ghosts of his high school past were listening.

“Yea, this droning horn and reed warm up with the drums rattling away down there is pretty avant garde – I wonder what their stage band is like?” I wondered aloud.

Ninth-grade Principal Mike Lott, one of Petal High’s four principals, pointed out that 40 percent of his school’s 1,200, 9-12 grade students are involved in music in one way or another.

The Petal High School Band website –  – notes it “is the largest organization in the Petal School District, comprised of approximately 160 students in grades 9-12. During the fall, these students are a part of the All-Superior PHS Marching Band. The band performs at football games and makes appearances at parades and community events as well as competitions throughout the South. During the winter and spring, the band is divided into two performing ensembles that include the PHS Symphonic and Concert Bands. The Petal Band program now also offers winter performing opportunities with the Indoor Visual Ensemble and the Indoor Percussion Theatre. All of these groups have received continuous superior ratings in state and regional competitions.” – And some federal, state and local bureaucrats and politicians would have you believe the arts don’t enrich the US student experience enough to fund directly.

Lott said that while the Town of Petal’s population is about 10,000, the school district’s population reaches beyond the town limits into Forrest County to serve a total of about 25,000 people.

And while the band is no stranger to travel and awards, Trombonist Miller said the band’s director didn’t initially alert the band about the application for the Inaugural Parade out of fear of setting his oung charges up for a big fall.

“Our Band Director Mr. “G” (Garnard) made the statement to our Hattiesburg American Newspaper that he didn’t even expect to make it, that’s why he didn’t say anything [to us] about it. And then when he got the papers back it was a huge surprise for us.”

And speaking of huge – Warren Public Schools Superintendent Pamela McInnis noted that Skyline (60) and the new Warren County High (50) bands combined were smaller than the Petal contingent.

As the band practiced on Skyline High’s grounds under the watchful eyes of Assistant Directors Ryan Saul and Chris Word on Jan. 19, Director Mr. Mike Garnard was in DC running through the logistics of the Petal High School Band’s march through history the following day.

“We congratulate you on your achievement, and maybe someday our schools can reach the kind of achievement you have – we hope so at least,” the Petal band, school officials and sponsors were told during welcoming ceremonies in Skyline’s auditorium.

Front Royal, VA Mayor Eugene Tewalt, Warren County, VA Board of Supervisros Chairman Archie Fox, FR Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek, Town Councilmen Shae Parker and Chris Holloway and Warren County, VA Administrator Doug Stanley, his wife and family joined McInnis in welcoming the Petal contingent to Front Royal as a staging area for its jump to the nation’s capital just 70 miles to the east the following day.

Also lauded for their work in facilitating Petal’s trip north were members of Rotary Clubs and Chambers of Commerce on both ends of the trip. Local resident Stephanie Fretwell of the Linden Rotary, whose sister lives in the Forrest County-Hattiesburg area of Mississippi where Petal is, acknowledged several months of logistical efforts to see that Petal High would have their place on the national stage on Jan. 20, 2009, as Barack H. Obama is inaugurated as the 56th President of the United States. Deborah Reynolds (not that one, you aging movie buffs), both a Petal Rotarian and Chamber President thanked her local counterparts for their help, and other local officials for their support and assistance as the Petal Band got in its final practice before the big day.

And remember what the late opera singer Pavorotti said about practice, kids – “If I don’t practice for one day, I notice; if I don’t practice for two days, the band notices; and if I don’t practice for three days, the audience notices.”

The band arrived in Front Royal at about 11 a.m. on Jan. 19 after an overnight stay in a Roanoke Holiday Inn. They descended on the South Street Burger King and McDonald’s for lunch before arriving at Skyline to be greeted by Activities Adminstrator Buck Smith at 1 p.m. They will stay at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center in southern Warren County the evening of the 19th before heading east early.

“I think they told us we’d be getting a 4 a.m. breakfast call,” one band member pondered. That estimate was later pared back even earlier as those around the band said they were expecting to pull out of the 4-H Center and Warren County by 4:30 a.m. for their march into the historical American landscape.

(Dan McDermott contributed to this story)

Published in: on January 20, 2009 at 5:36 am  Comments (1)  

Free complete print edition: Mid January, 2009

Click here to open

Inside this issue:

  • Front Royal, VA woman loses finger in domestic dispute
  • Browntown Road shooting
  • Additional charges filed in Warren County, VA house ramming incident
  • Two arrested in Papa John’s Pizza robbery
  • Be on the lookout for Daniel Eli of Bethlehem, PA
  • Driveway scams
  • Openings for Citizens Police Academy
  • R-MA teacher honored
  • State River Park attendance down
  • New Linden, VA trash site opens
  • Town of Front Royal, VA approaches liaison: Let’s talk – just not about ‘that’
  • Warren County, VA approves 5-pronged January liaison agenda
  • Capt. Richard H. Furr makes it official – applying for Front Royal, VA police chief’s job
  • Del. Clay Athey’s Report from Richmond, VA
  • Neighbors point fingers (not guns) during shooting debate
  • ‘Pawsitive Pup’ makes dog grooming more convenient
  • NFL playoffs – Still Cheering Purple Pride
  • Activities & events in Front Royal and Warren County, VA
  • Opinion: The Gaza Holocaust
  • Letter: History’s Revenge
  • Front Royal/Warren County, VA Chamber of Commerce news
  • Entire issue is free here.

Also, 2008: The Year in Review

  • 2008 – It wasn’t that great: From bad weather to a lousy economy – good riddance
  • Inventor John Kovak: Childhood machine could be key to clean energy production in Front Royal, VA
  • CPV, Dominion Power make it official – the ‘buy’ is on
  • Paying for our own noose? Front Royal, VA debates the true price of power – 50 years of coal
  • Loss of father, two young children mourned at Candlelight Vigil
  • Town of Front Royal, VA approves corridor, EDA resolutions  – Threat of litigation by Riverton Commons restaurants hovers over passage
  • First Crooked Run Center tax revenue estimates in
  • Town, FDR Services settle water-sewer rate war – Two years of litigation ends with compromise, 15-year service contract
  • Should the Dow be at 3,000? Up a grand, down a grand – Great Depression 2.0?
  • Show me the money – Brooks calls out EDA financing – EDA’s reduced municipal funding request opens a fiscal can of worms
  • Town move on EDA assets likely futile – Virginia state law protects autonomy of economic development authorities
  • Town to EDA – ‘Pretty please with sugar on top’ – Town rephrases effort to gain control of millions in EDA assets
  • Abusive driver fees’ hit the dustbin of legislative history – Refunds included in ‘civil remedial fee’ repeal signed into law by Virginia governor
  • Virginia Governor Tim Kaine cites importance of dialogue in state government
  • Va. Supreme Court rules against NVTA road taxing – Local plaintiff, delegate weigh in on decision, state funding responsibilities
  • Questions remain about Virginia state trooper collision – Public’s right to know at issue as accident investigation continues
  • Humane Society board recalled under contentious circumstances – Accusations fly over membership voting eligibility, animal care priorities
  • Wagner Shelter two weeks later – ‘a remarkable change’; In the wake of contentious board recall, humans & animals move on
  • Monk murder mystery – A personal remembrance of a soul in wonder
  • Entire issue is free here.

Is surfing the Internet altering your brain?

The Internet is not just changing the way people live but altering the way our brains work with a neuroscientist arguing this is an evolutionary change which will put the tech-savvy at the top of the new social order.

Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA in California who specializes in brain function, has found through studies that Internet searching and text messaging has made brains more adept at filtering information and making snap decisions.

Published in: on October 28, 2008 at 11:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

Could this be a realigning election?

What kind of change will this presidential election bring to the political landscape? Historian Robert S. McElvaine compares 2008 with past elections, and concludes that the results this year have the potential to be broad, profound and lasting.

This year’s equation: 1920 + 1932 = 2008

By Robert S. McElvaine
History News Service

We often hear that the election that takes place next Tuesday will be one of the most important in American history. Such statements, however, are often little more than hyperbole. To make the case that an election is momentous, you need to compare it with previous critical ones.

The most important elections are those in which political history changes course. There have been only three genuine realignments in the past 125 years. They centered on the presidential elections of 1896, 1932 and 1968.

It’s often assumed that realignments are the positive results of the actions of popular leaders, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. In fact, however, the origins of realignments are always negative. Voters turn against a party that has long held power when it presides over a major failure.

A long period of Republican dominance began with the 1896 election as the result of an economic collapse, the Panic of 1893, that started under the Democrats. GOP supremacy continued until an economic collapse on its watch, the Panic of 1929, turned the public against the party. The Democratic ascendancy that was made possible by the Panic of 1929 and began with the Election of 1932 lasted until 1968, when a disastrous, unnecessary war discredited the party.

The 1968 turning point was somewhat disguised in that year’s election because of the third-party candidacy of George Wallace and a very narrow victory by Richard Nixon. But Republican strategists understood that if they could add the Wallace vote to Nixon’s they would have a substantial majority and that they could do that by running against “the Sixties.” The GOP used that formula to win an overwhelming victory in 1972. Watergate temporarily slowed the Republican ascendancy, but it was clear by 1980.

Now the long period of Republican dominance that began with a negative reaction against the Democrats in 1968 appears likely to end next Tuesday because both a disastrous, unnecessary war and the Panic of 2008 have discredited the Republicans. If so, Barack Obama will be presented with an opportunity to turn a negative rejection of the party blamed with messing things up into a positive mandate for change and a lasting majority for his party. FDR was able to take advantage of such an opportunity, but Nixon was not, leaving it for Reagan to do so a decade later.

As for which previous election this year’s most resembles, several candidates have been nominated. The two mentioned most often are 1960 and 1980.

In 1960, a young, inexperienced “celebrity” Democrat from a minority that had never before produced a president ran against a more experienced but less likable Republican. The young, handsome, Catholic John F. Kennedy won a narrow victory over the experienced, monochromatic Republican vice president, Richard Nixon.

Voters in 1980 were very upset with the failings of the incumbent party’s president but were also fearful that the challenger was not up to the job, had no experience in foreign policy, and might be dangerous. In the closing days of the campaign, though, a majority of voters decided that it was even riskier to keep going in the same direction with Jimmy Carter than to take a leap into the unknown with Ronald Reagan.

Both of these elections parallel that of 2008 and point toward an Obama victory this year. There are, though, three other elections that are even more similar to the one this year.

In 1896, the party in power under which the economy had collapsed nominated a man who disagreed with the party’s president on some issues. Although William Jennings Bryan was far more different from Democratic President Grover Cleveland than John McCain is from Republican President George W. Bush, Bryan’s party affiliation helped to doom him and William McKinley was elected.

In 1920, the incumbent party’s president had become very unpopular as a result of a war that had not produced the idealistic results he had promised when the United States entered it. Woodrow Wilson was not on the ballot, but his party’s nominee, James Cox, was chained to his party’s unpopular president, who pulled him down like an anchor, and Republican Warren Harding won in a landslide.

In 1932, as in 1896, the economy had collapsed and the incumbent president was extremely unpopular. The challenger was a man who was criticized as being all fluff and no substance. That challenger, Franklin Roosevelt, easily defeated the incumbent, Herbert Hoover.

Next week’s election is shaping up as a combination of 1932 and 1920. The Panic of 2008 is having an effect on the Republican nominee similar to that of the Panic of 1929 on the Republican candidate in 1932. But, unlike Hoover in 1932, McCain is not the incumbent president. That circumstance makes the 2008 election more like that of 1920: McCain is being weighed down by his party’s president and that president’s war, as Cox was in 1920.

The equation for next Tuesday, then, is: 1920+1932 = 2008.

And we can take some comfort in the fact that history indicates that while realignments are caused by party failures, they usually set the country in a fresh direction and usher in needed reforms.

Robert S. McElvaine, a writer for History News Service, is a professor of history at Millsaps College and the author of “The Great Depression.”

Published in: on October 28, 2008 at 5:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Watch: Sprint CEO Dan Hesse at the National Press Club

Dan Hesse spoke Friday on the past and future of the wireless phone industry. Very interesting for us techno-geeks.

Not on Youtube yet but you can watch it on C-SPAN.

Published in: on October 27, 2008 at 5:27 am  Leave a Comment  

Greece unearths Neolithic home, household equipment

Clay pots are seen among the ruins of a Neolithic home unearthead by archaeologists in northern Greece, near the city of Pella, October 24, 2008. REUTERS/Culture Ministry/Handout

Archaeologists in northern Greece have unearthed the ruins of a Neolithic house, a rare find that offers valuable information about everyday life 6,000 years ago, the Greek culture ministry said Friday.

A kitchen area with two ovens, clay pots and stone tools, and two more rooms show stone age farmers processed grains in the house, which appears to have burned down.

Published in: on October 26, 2008 at 5:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Skyline Drive Designated a National Historic Landmark

Rare NHL Designation Recognizes Places of National Significance

Governor Timothy M. Kaine announced Friday that Virginia’s Skyline Drive, a 105-mile roadway which winds through Shenandoah National Park along the crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains between Front Royal and Rockfish Gap, has been designated as a National Historic Landmark by U.S. Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne.

The NHL designation is the highest ranking bestowed by the U.S. government on a historic resource. It is reserved for those places that “possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States,” according to the National Park Service.

“This designation reminds Virginians of what an extraordinary national treasure we have in the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, that portion of the road extending beyond Shenandoah National Park,” Governor Kaine said. “What better time for this honor to arrive than in October, when autumn colors along the roadway are at their peak, attracting visitors from around the state and nation to Skyline Drive’s vistas.”

In 1996, the Department of Historic Resources listed Skyline Drive on the Virginia Landmarks Register and nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places. The department’s nomination cited the road’s national significance as a new model for conservation. That model was based on the acquisition of land with inherent natural beauty for permanent protection, while also providing recreational and scenic opportunities for the growing number of automobile travelers that arose during the early 20th century.

“The paradox of Skyline Drive is that the roadway was a powerful force for preserving the natural and historic landscapes and viewsheds of the Blue Ridge Mountains. From its earliest conception through to its final innovative design, the drive became the centerpiece of Shenandoah National Park, shaping the development of that splendid place.” said Kathleen S. Kilpatrick, director of the Department of Historic Resources. “Skyline Drive represents one of the earliest successes in Virginia resulting from a partnership between local, state, and federal agencies.”

In honoring Skyline Drive, the Interior Department notes that the roadway was “[d]esigned and constructed as the backbone of Shenandoah National Park from 1931 to 1942.”

“Skyline Drive is an outstanding example of the naturalistic landscape design developed by the National Park Service in the 1920s and refined in the following decade in the national parks and parkways of the eastern United States,” according to the Interior Department. The road’s balanced design, which flows with the landscape, “became the model not only for the nation, but also for other nations,” according to the Secretary’s announcement.

While Skyline Drive’s construction is often associated with the Civilian Conservation Corps formed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, work on the roadway officially began in 1931, under President Hoover, who had a presidential getaway cabin at Rapidan Camp, located today within the park in Madison County.

Although the CCC did not construct the roadbed, “there would be no Skyline Drive without the efforts of the CCC,” according to Reed Engle, a cultural resource specialist with Shenandoah National Park. “They graded the slopes on either side of the roadway, built the guardrails and guard walls, constructed overlooks, planted hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs and acres of grass to landscape both sides of the roadbed, built picnic areas and campgrounds, comfort stations, visitor contact and maintenance buildings, and made the signs that guided visitors on their way,” Reed writes on the Shenandoah National Park’s Website.

In Virginia there are 118 other National Historic Landmarks, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Fort Monroe in Hampton and Richmond’s Jackson Ward. Nationwide there are fewer than 2,500 NHLs.

More information on Secretary Kempthorne’s announcement designating Skyline Drive an NHL, along with 15 other sites, is available at

A complete listing of Virginia’s National Historic Landmarks is available at

Published in: on October 25, 2008 at 6:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Bailout: A Far Cry from Socialism

Historian Andrew M. Schocket examines the new bank-rescue plan in light of earlier government involvement with banks, and finds that bankers are likely to remain in control, for better or worse.

By Andrew M. Schocket
History News Service

“Socialism!” That’s the alarm many conservative commentators and legislators are sounding about the latest development in Washington’s bank bailout scheme. Critics worry that the latest bank rescue plan will begin a slippery slope towards socialism or at least a day when government officials run American businesses, the American economy and, eventually, American lives.

But this isn’t the first time the U.S. government has held stock in banks, and the nation never turned to socialism. Unless the government’s investment in banks comes with effective government oversight, the real problem is that banks will continue to have too much autonomy rather than too little.

As part of the federal government’s financial bailout plan outlined over the past few days, President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson joined an international effort to help troubled banks by buying stock in them. Their hope is that the government’s investment will get the banks to lend more money. It would also assure bankers that the loans they give each other are safe (banks actually lend each other money on a regular basis). Then money will start flowing again between banks and to businesses that right now can’t get the credit they routinely depend upon. If the plan succeeds, when the economy finally improves and the stock market goes back up, the government could sell its bank stock and probably make a profit for taxpayers.

Despite some concern about the United States becoming socialist, partial government ownership of corporations, especially banks, dates back to the beginning of the nation. When the government did own a piece of banks, businessmen elected by bank shareholders — not government officials — sang the tune, much to the dismay of the legislators and their constituents who warned that banks had too little public oversight.

Many of America’s first banks were owned partly by either state governments or the national government. These included the first Bank of the United States, established in 1791, in which the federal government held 20 percent of all shares. Among the states, Pennsylvania in particular owned stock in numerous banks, beginning in 1793 with a third of the Bank of Pennsylvania. How much of a stake our current government will buy in individual banks remains to be seen, but it will probably not be more than a quarter of any given bank.

Businessmen ran banks in the early republic as they saw fit regardless of how much stock governments held. Usually, when a government owned a chunk of a bank, it was allowed to appoint a few men to the bank’s board of directors. But government-appointed directors were always a small minority. They got outvoted or ignored; one writer and former bank director, appalled at how little influence government-appointed directors held, sneeringly referred to them as “men of straw.”

People wary of bankers’ motives complained that banks operated solely for the interest of the private board directors, despite the broader economic consequences of their actions. It didn’t sound much different from today’s complaints about investment bankers raking in millions while families getting foreclosed out of their homes and taxpayers pick up the tab for bank losses.

Those early bank critics had reason to be concerned. Our current financial crisis is largely caused by too many bad housing loans made possible by recent relaxation of government oversight of financial institutions. In the 1810s and again in the early 1830s, despite the protests of state directors, many state banks made far more loans than was wise, too. In their reports to state legislators, they offered the barest of financial information — certainly not enough to judge their financial stability. Both those times the bubble burst. We can only hope that our economy does not fall as far as it did during the Panic of 1819 or the Panic of 1837. When dozens of banks failed, these panics threw the country into economic depressions.

The new bailout plan will be administered according to the recently passed $700 billion federal bailout legislation. Although there are provisions against golden parachutes for banking executives, among other restrictions, it does nothing to rein in the kind of behavior that caused the financial crisis in the first place.

One thing remains the same: regardless of how much money the government invests, the bailout plan still allows bankers to be in charge of bank policies, for better or, as we have seen recently, for worse. It’s not socialism that we’re getting or socialism that we have to fear, but unregulated capitalism. Capitalism got us into this mess, and we are counting on government-backed capitalism to get us out of it.

Andrew M. Schocket is the author of “Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia” (2007) and writes for the History News Service. He is an associate professor of history and American culture studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Published in: on October 17, 2008 at 11:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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