The Political Uses of Antisemitism (per Sigmund Freud)

The famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is only one of many who expanded on the ideas promulgated by Sigmund Freud in his seminal political work, Civilization And Its Discontents. Bourdieu authored Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979) – rated the sixth most important sociological work of the twentieth century by the International Sociological Association, in which, paraphrasing Freud, he observed that “social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat.”

It was this paragraph of Freud’s that not only set forth the idea of the “narcissism of minor differences” and its uses in (re)channeling aggression but suggested how useful antisemitism functioned in that regard:

It is clearly not easy for man to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression. They do not feel comfortable without it. The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised. It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness. I once discussed the phenomenon that is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other — like the Spaniards and Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scotch, and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name of “the narcissism of minor differences”, a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier. In this respect the Jewish people, scattered everywhere, have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts . . . “

Freud by Max Halberstadt, 1921

Freud by Max Halberstadt, 1921

August 1, 1834 – Slavery Officially Abolished Throughout [Most of] the British Empire

The Slavery Abolition Act was an 1833 Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom abolishing slavery throughout most of the British Empire (with the exceptions “of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company,” the “Island of Ceylon,” and “the Island of Saint Helena”). It received the Royal Assent (which means it became law) on 29 August 1833 and came into force on 1 August 1834. 

In practical terms, however, only slaves below the age of six were freed, as all slaves over the age of six were redesignated as “apprenticed Labourers.” Apprentices were divided by this law into three classes, with the term of their apprenticeships dependent on their class. All apprentices of all classes were to be released by August, 1840. Additional provisions of the law specified how such apprentices were to be treated.


The Act also included the right of compensation for slave-owners who would be losing their “property.” The amount of money to be spent on the compensation claims was set at “the Sum of Twenty Millions Pounds Sterling”. In all, the government paid out over 40,000 separate awards. The £20 million fund was 40% of the government’s total annual expenditure.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was actually repealed in its entirety under the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1998. The repeal did not make slavery legal again, however, as sections of the Slave Trade Act 1824, Slave Trade Act 1843 and Slave Trade Act 1873 remained in force. In addition the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates into British Law Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits the holding of persons as slaves.

July 26, 1908 – The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is Established

On this day in history, Charles J. Bonaparte, Attorney General in the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, signed a memo describing a “regular force of special agents” available to investigate certain cases of the Department of Justice. This date is “celebrated” [in the words of the FBI website] as the official birth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation — known throughout the world today as the FBI. (The agency was officially established in 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI). Its name was changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1935.)

Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte

Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte

After Bonaparte was appointed to his office, he discovered that he had no means to combat the rising tide of crime and corruption. Not only were violent crimes on the rise, but political and economic corruption was also a growing problem. Bonaparte had to borrow agents from the Secret Service to help him with his cases, and not only were they expensive, but these agents reported not to the Attorney General, but to the Chief of the Secret Service, giving Bonaparte little control over his own investigations. Even more frustrating, when Bonaparte made the problem known to Congress, they banned the loan of Secret Service operatives to any federal department in May 1908.

With Roosevelt’s blessing, Bonaparte created his own force of special investigators. In his memo on this date, he ordered Department of Justice attorneys to refer most investigative matters for the Department of Justice to his Chief Examiner, Stanley W. Finch, for handling by one of his new 34 agents.


July 22, 1862 – Dix-Hill Cartel Agreement Between the Union and the Confederacy

On this day in history, an agreement was concluded between Union Major General John A. Dix and Confederate Major General D.H. Hill regarding the handling of exchanges of prisoners of war.

Union Major General John A. Dix

Union Major General John A. Dix

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Federal government had a dilemma with respect to the prisoners. The Lincoln Administration wanted to avoid any action that might appear as an official recognition of the Confederate government in Richmond, including the formal transfer of military captives, although Union and Confederate forces did occasionally exchange prisoners on an ad hoc basis.

But there was a great deal of public pressure for the exchanges, especially after great numbers of Union soldiers were captured by the South. On December 11, 1861, the US Congress passed a joint resolution calling on President Lincoln to “inaugurate systematic measures for the exchange of prisoners in the present rebellion.”

Negotiators from the North and South had several meetings on the subject, using an earlier cartel arrangement between the United States and Great Britain in the War of 1812 as a template for discussion. But there were many issues of contention between the two sides, including where the trades would take place, how expenses would be covered for them, and which military ranks would be considered “equivalent” for purposes of exchange.

Confederate Major General D.H. Hill

Confederate Major General D.H. Hill

In addition, there was the question of exchanging non-combatants, such as citizens accused of disloyalty, and civilian employees of the military, such as teamsters and sutlers.

After the Dix-Hill Agreement, the exchanges began well enough in August of 1862, but the process broke down just months later. The Confederacy was outraged by the Union execution of a Southern citizen, and the North objected to the fact that the Confederates refused to parole and exchange any African-American soldiers taken captive who might have escaped from slavery. Confederate authorities instead treated these prisoners as runaways suitable only for return to their former owners.

By early June 1863, the exchanges had effectively stopped.

Negotiations continued however, and in January 1865 with the end of the war in sight, General Grant permitted the resumption of exchanges when the Confederate authorities agreed to include all prisoners.

You can read the text of the Dix-Hill Cartel agreement here. You can also read the text of the 1812 British-American Diplomacy Cartel for the Exchange of Prisoners of War Between Great Britain and the United States of America here.

July 18, 1947 – President Truman Signs the Presidential Succession Act

On this day in history, President Harry Truman signed into law an act clarifying the order of succession in the event of the death of a sitting president.

Article II of the Constitution, as originally adopted, states:

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.”

The Second Congress (1791-1793) exercised its constitutional authority to provide for presidential vacancy or inability in the Succession Act of 1792 (1 Stat. 240). After examining several options, Congress named the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, in that order, to succeed if the presidency and vice presidency were both vacant. During debate on the bill, and in all debates on the issue thereafter, there was considerable discussion of the question of whether the President Pro Tempore and the Speaker could be considered “officers” in the sense intended by the Constitution. Nevertheless, the bill was enacted.

Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., Speaker of the House in 1792

Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., Speaker of the House in 1792

President James A. Garfield’s death led to a major change in succession law. Shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881, the President survived 79 days before succumbing on September 19. Vice President Chester A. Arthur took office, but the positions of Speaker and President Pro Tempore were vacant throughout the President’s illness. Congress subsequently passed the Succession Act of 1886 (24 Stat. 1) in order to insure the line of succession and guarantee that potential successors would be of the same party as the deceased incumbent. This legislation transferred succession after the Vice President from the President Pro Tempore and the Speaker to cabinet officers in the chronological order in which their departments were created, provided certain conditions were met. Further, it eliminated the requirement for a special election, thus ensuring that any future successor would serve the full balance of the presidential term. This act governed succession until 1947.

President Chester A. Arthur

President Chester A. Arthur

When the 1945 death of Franklin Roosevelt propelled Vice President Truman into the presidency, Truman urged placing the Speaker, as an elected representative of his district, as well as the chosen leader of the “elected representatives of the people,” next in line to the vice president.  The new law restored the Congressional officers to places directly after the Vice President, but switched their order from the 1792 Act, placing the Speaker of the House first and the President pro tempore second. The Presidential Cabinet Secretaries and Officers then followed, again in the order in which their respective departments were created.

President Harry Truman

President Harry Truman

The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy helped set events in motion that culminated in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, a key element in current succession procedures. While Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded without incident after Kennedy’s death, it was noted that Johnson’s potential immediate successor, House Speaker John W. McCormack, was 71 years old, and Senate President Pro Tempore Carl T. Hayden was 86 and visibly frail. In addition, many worried that a vice presidential vacancy for any length of time constituted a dangerous gap in the nation’s leadership during the Cold War, an era of international tensions and the threat of nuclear war. It was argued that there should be a qualified Vice President ready to succeed to the presidency at all times. The 25th Amendment, providing for vice presidential vacancies and presidential disability, was proposed by the 89th Congress in 1965 and approved by the requisite number of states in 1967.

In particular, Section 2 provides:

Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”

Section 2 of the 25th Amendment has been invoked twice since its ratification: in 1973, when Representative Gerald R. Ford was nominated and approved to succeed Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who had resigned, and again in 1974, when the former Governor of New York, Nelson A. Rockefeller, was nominated and approved to succeed Ford, who had become President when President Richard M. Nixon resigned.

President Gerald R. Ford

President Gerald R. Ford

Following the events of September 11, 2001 and the prospect of a “decapitation” of a large part of the U.S. government by an act of mass terrorism, there have been proposals to reexamine presidential succession. In March 9, 2006, the Presidential Succession Act was amended to add the Secretary of Homeland Security after the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

A number of issues characterize current debates about further revision of succession, including the old argument about whether federal legislators are “Officers” under the Constitution’s Succession Clause; the need for efficient conduct of the presidency (i.e., would, for example, the President Pro Tempore have the necessary skills to serve as president?); and the important matter of divided government: suppose the successor is from a different party?

These measures run in parallel to the Government’s use of secret “Continuity of Operations” plans, a practice instituted by modern presidential administrations in response to the perceived threat of a nuclear war. Provisions of the plans (made by presidents using secret Emergency Action Orders, which for the most part are classified because of national security concerns) have designated certain government officials to assume Cabinet and other executive branch positions and carry out the responsibilities of the position if the primary office holders are killed. Eisenhower’s plan, for example, named industry titans, such as Theodore Koop of the CBS Television Network Broadcast House to head the “Office of Censorship”; Reagan’s National Security Council designated Oliver North as the “action officer” for the secret program. (Oliver North was later indicted on 16 felony counts and convicted on three of them pursuant to the Iran-contra scandal.)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

You can read more about continuity of government plans here and here.

July 16, 1794 -Climax of Whiskey Tax Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion began in 1791, during the presidency of George Washington. It was provoked by the imposition of an excise tax on distilled spirits. The new excise was a part of treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton’s program to fund war debt incurred during the Revolutionary War.

The tax infuriated farmers in the western frontier regions who were long accustomed to distilling their surplus grain and corn into whiskey. The protestors considered the tax a confiscation of their rightfully earned profits.

The westerners had other grievances as well with the national government, including the perception that the government was not adequately protecting their frontier from Native Americans, and that they were prohibited (by Spain) from using the Mississippi River for commercial navigation. Until these issues were addressed, westerners felt the government was ignoring their security and economic welfare, so why should they pay taxes that, in their perceptions, were only used for the betterment of the easterners?

Throughout counties in Western Pennsylvania, protesters met would-be tax collectors with pitchforks, tar and feathers, and even gunfire.

In May of 1791, federal district attorney William Rawle issued subpoenas for more than 60 distillers in Pennsylvania who had not paid the excise tax. Distillers who received these writs were obligated to travel to Philadelphia to appear in federal court. For farmers on the western frontier, such a journey was expensive and time-consuming. This was the last straw.

Resistance came to a climax on this day in history, when a mob of more than 500 armed men near Pittsburgh burned the homes of the whiskey-tax collector and the U.S. Marshall, forcing them to take their families and flee the area. The remaining tax collectors in the area followed or resigned.

President Washington ordered Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to raise an army of 13,000 to subdue the rebels. The rebels disbanded before the arrival of the army, however, and there was no confrontation. About 20 men were arrested, but all were later acquitted or pardoned.

The whiskey excise remained difficult to collect, however, and was repealed after Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party, which opposed policies promulgated by Hamilton’s Federalist Party, came to power in 1801.

Depiction of George Washington reviewing the troops near Fort Cumberland, Maryland, before their march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion.

Depiction of George Washington reviewing the troops near Fort Cumberland, Maryland, before their march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion.

July 13, 1787 – Continental Congress Passes the Northwest Ordinance

On this day in history, “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North West of the River Ohio,” was adopted by the Confederation Congress.


The Northwest Ordinance created the Northwest Territory, the first organized territory of the United States, and established its government. It outlined the process for admitting a new state to the Union, guaranteeing that newly created states would be equal to the original thirteen states. It also established freedom of religion, right to trial by jury, and public education as rights of the people. Additionally, slavery was banned:

Art. 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.”

You can read the full text of the Ordinance here.

Although many people influenced the composition of this legislation, Nathan Dane was the framer, compiler, and writer of the Ordinance, which was adopted without a single alteration.  (Dane got most of its matter from previously failed ordinances, including The Ordinance of 1784, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, which was passed by Congress but never went into effect, as well as from the law of Massachusetts.) Dane was a graduate of Harvard College and practiced law for some twenty years before becoming involved first in the Massachusetts legislature and later in the Continental Congress.

Nathan Dane

Nathan Dane

Dane’s amendment banning slavery was offered at the last minute, and was quickly accepted without much discussion, to the surprise of Dane himself, who later wrote that he “had no idea the States would agree to the sixth article, prohibiting slavery….”

On August 7, 1789, first President George Washington signed a replacement, the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, in which the new U.S. Congress reaffirmed the Ordinance with slight modifications under the newly effective Constitution of the United States. The Ordinance purported to be not merely legislation that could later be amended by the Congress, but rather “the following articles shall be considered as Articles of compact between the original States and the people and states in the said territory, and forever remain unalterable, unless by common consent….”


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