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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

On Language

First, “Fighting”

I am so tired of the word “fight.” It seems that every other e-mail that I get, especially those from political sources, have a form of fight in the subject line. No wonder people appear to be angry, when even traditionally pacifist organizations are proud to fight. And it’s not just politics: I got one this morning headlined “London feminists fight to preserve library.”

This library of women’s history has been there for more than a century and isn’t likely to permanently close just because it lost its lease. Why not “aim to preserve?” Or even simply “will preserve?” Why does everything have to be a fight? Please join me in boycotting this word that encourages violence. English has a huge vocabulary. Let’s use it.

And “Unconstitutional”

Speaking of misused words, how about “unconstitutional?” A friend recently said that he thought the income tax was unconstitutional. Except that I know him to be a sweet person who had an unfortunately narrow education, I would have dropped my teeth. The progressive income tax is one of relatively few issues that absolutely, unquestionably is constitutional because our great-grandfathers (and yes, almost all voters at the time were male) added it to the US Constitution in a very deliberate way.

As you may remember, the Founding Fathers made it extremely difficult to change their work: any amendment to the Constitution requires a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress, as well as ratification by ¾ of the state legislatures, again meaning both houses. By the time any public debate reaches that level of unanimity, the question is likely to be passé.

The 1789 Constitution also forbade export taxes, which meant that import taxes (or “customs” or “tariffs”) were the chief source of revenue until the Civil War, when Congress and Abraham Lincoln adopted an income tax. It ended with the war’s end, but as the nation expanded, the need for revenue did not decrease. The tax burden became increasingly unequal, with farmers especially paying more than their share through various federal “excise” taxes, or taxes on specific goods or services, such as railroad use. (Or the tax on tea that symbolized the American Revolution.)

Unfair taxation was a motivation for the Progressive Party, which – unlike today’s Tea Party -- had many specific goals that were well thought out. One was the progressive (or graduated) income tax, which intended that the rich pay at a higher rate than the poor. The Supreme Court had ruled this unconstitutional, so Congress made it constitutional by adopting the 16th Amendment. Congressional passage was in 1909, and by 1913, ¾ of the states had ratified it. The amendment authorized a federal tax on personal incomes without regard to state residence.

The income tax was “graduated,” in the sense that higher gradations of income paid higher taxes – and when I wrote my books on women and World War II, I encountered several examples of women who were proud that they were earning enough to be eligible to pay taxes on their income. The system worked well for a long time, but not so much in recent decades, as corporate lobbyists have succeeded in getting Congress to adopt countless exemptions that benefit their particular business. The result again is unfairness -- but not unconstitutionality.

Privatization and Outsourcing

Two more words that I wish I’d never heard. If all the hot breath of those usages were put into a furnace, we probably could add another degree or two to global warming. I shall never understand why some people take it as a given that anything private is a better bargain than anything public. Don’t they understand that businesses (understandably) are in business to make a profit? And that police, firefighters, librarians, teachers, and other government servants are not? How can it ever be cheaper to hire an outsider who adds profit to a bottom line?

Take Sun Pass. It’s a huge positive in our lives to drive past the former tollbooths and simply get a bill once in a while, and I’m all for letting electric eyes take over for human ones when that is possible. But Sun Pass still is a tax-based governmental entity, even though you wouldn’t know that from a letter that recently came in our mail. The envelope was postmarked San Antonio, Texas, and the return address was an intimidating five-name law firm with no indication of anything to do with Sun Pass. The message inside was that we were overdue some $25 on our account. Neither Hubby nor I remember getting an original bill – but the point is that this is another of Rick Scott’s determined destructions of our state.

Sun Pass bills should come from Tallahassee and from state government. If there is a need to pass on the problem to a private bill collector, there are plenty of those in Florida – to say nothing of using the bill-collecting tools that government long has had: the Department of Revenue, county tax collectors, clerks of the circuit courts, etc. Instead, we leap to a private firm in Texas. By outsourcing such work – at a profit to his lawyer friends – the governor can claim to have reduced the size of government, but that is not to the benefit of any Floridian.

The Twenty-Dollar Bill and More Bad Words

I promised my friend Scott Peeler that I would write about Harriet Tubman being on the new twenties, in place of President Andrew Jackson. Scott is right in his complaint that media sources simplistically say that Jackson was removed because he was a slave owner. Instead, Scott thinks (and I agree) the focus should be on Jackson’s role in the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which came close to genocide for the tribes who lived here in the Southeast.

Moreover, if slave owning – of Africans, Indians, or mixed race people – were a reason for removing people from money, then we also would have to forego Washington on the one-dollar bill. We’d probably have to tear down the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, as Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, too. With James Madison and James Monroe added to Jackson, four of our first seven presidents were slave owners. The only exceptions were John Adams and John Quincy Adams, both of whom were from Massachusetts, where slavery had proven to be unprofitable. And where Abigail Adams ran the farm that allowed her husband and son to be big shots.

Nor should Northerners be as self-righteous as some are in their false belief that they never had slavery. They did, including the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania. The first state to begin gradual abolition of slavery was New Jersey in 1804. New York did not follow until 1827, less than three decades prior to the Civil War. Delaware was the worst: Slavery was legal there until the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution made it illegal everywhere. That was in December 1865, more than six months after the war was over.

One of the sidebars in my four-volume History of Women in the United States: A State-by-State Reference is on a Delaware church that owned a slave. It was a Lutheran congregation with Swedish roots, and the nameless slave had been purchased in 1733, paid for 50 with acres of church land. She cleaned the church and cooked for the preacher, but a 1742 inventory reported, “the negress” had become “old and contrary, and being set up at auction was sold for seven shillings.”

This is shocking and sad, but true. Acknowledging such truth is important, and we should not cover it over when we are accused of being “politically correct” -- another term I want to condemn to utter disuse. And anyway, what’s wrong with being correct?

Andrew Jackson and One More Crime of Usage

Back to Andrew Jackson. His hatred for Native Americans dated to his childhood, when all of his Irish immigrant family was killed in the backcountry warfare of the American Revolution. Natives had good reason to ally themselves with the British, but teenage Jackson was akin to most Americans in believing Indians to be a menace – terrorists, in today’s terms. He sought and won military appointments and spent most of his life attempting to kill them, with or without authorization from Washington.

Elected president in 1828, he is strongly associated with the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that forced the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, and other tribes to leave their ancient lands and move to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma – but as with slavery, others also were guilty. Members of Congress, obviously, voted for the act, and in Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia (1831), the US Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that the many treaties granting land rights to natives meant nothing.

Soldiers on horses marched these peoples from the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, and more, to what was supposed to be their new land forever. Here in Florida, we put Seminoles on ships and took them across the Gulf, where they then walked north to Oklahoma. The process took years, and I grew up hearing tales of the Trail of Tears along the Arkansas River. A few managed to stay in northwest Arkansas near the Oklahoma border, and my best friend in college was a full Cherokee whose family slipped away. Most, however, suffered greatly.

Yet I confess that I have a soft spot in my heart for Andrew Jackson because he adored his wife. Rachel Donelson Jackson was a member of a prestigious Virginia family, but Jackson’s political enemies (see the Adams guys above) portrayed her as a Tennessee hillbilly and bigamist. She indeed had fled from an alcoholic and abusive husband, but this was an era when women could not sue for divorce (or anything else, in most states). She thought that he had divorced her when she married Andrew Jackson, and they remarried after the legal problems were sorted -- but East Coast cartoons depicted her as a wild woman.

Instead, her life was that of a quiet, childless Presbyterian managing their plantation near Nashville. Andrew was gone most of the time, and except for spending four months in Pensacola as the first First Lady of Florida, Rachel never left what she called “The Hermitage.” When he was elected president, she had a heart attack and died – I think to avoid having to go East. So I can’t completely condemn Andrew because in this and other cases, he showed that he understood how much laws discriminated against women. And he wrote a paean of more than a hundred words for Rachel’s tombstone, while specifying that his have only his name.

Yes, I know that I didn’t get to Harriet Tubman. Next week. She deserves many more words than remain today. Meanwhile, the last of this list of usages that I hope never again to see is re Tubman: “Conductor on the Underground Railroad.” Never!

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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