Monday, September 24, 2018

PART II: The du Ponts, the Founding Fathers and the creation
of the American economy

by Gene Pisasale

       When he wrote a letter to Alexander Hamilton in 1801 asking about an investment in property along the Brandywine for the site of a mill, E.I. du Pont was building a relationship with the man considered by many historians as the architect of the American financial system. Hamilton had long been a proponent of diversifying the colonial economy away from a strong dependence on agriculture and imported goods, toward greater domestic capabilities in manufacturing. As the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton wrote about the importance of domestically produced goods (including gunpowder) in his “Report on the Subject of Manufactures” presented to Congress on December 5, 1791, saying “There seems to be a moral certainty, that the trade of a country which is both manufacturing and Agricultural will be more lucrative and prosperous, than that of a Country which is merely Agricultural.” Du Pont shared Hamilton’s views on manufacturing and its importance to the economic stability of the nation. The Du Pont powder works would help the young country through many crises- and set in motion a revolution in technology that continues today.

       Gunpowder and its many variations, including blasting powder (mixtures of charcoal, sulfur and potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate) allowed colonists to protect themselves against Indians and hostile elements, as well as blast through rocks and tree stumps while clearing fields for cultivation. As the republic expanded westward, the demand for gunpowder increased exponentially. President Thomas Jefferson recognized the strategic importance of the du Pont powder mills, meeting with E.I. du Pont and the Marquis de Lafayette to requisition supplies for the U.S. government, the scene depicted in a painting by artist Stanley Arthurs. Well-known artists captured the importance of Du Pont products. Howard Pyle showed Du Pont powder wagons delivering gunpowder to Commodore Perry before the critical Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

       As the nation grew, so too did demand for gunpowder and other specialized products. Du Pont management fatefully declined to sell gunpowder to any southern states which had seceded during the Civil War, instead providing critical supplies for the North, helping the Union to prevail. By the dawn of the 20th century, demand for a wide array of items for industry and consumers prompted Du Pont management to diversify into new lines, including coatings and other chemical derivatives. Du Pont created the Experimental Station near Wilmington, Delaware to broaden its repertoire to meet an expanding array of needs, including the newly formed automotive industry, as well as applications in construction, mining, manufacturing, aerospace and consumer products. Du Pont supplied crucial materials to the United States government throughout World War I and II, its nylon allowing the creation of parachutes for the liberation of Europe. Consumers benefited in many ways: women gained a new item of apparel (nylon stockings), as well as numerous products for the home and personal use.

       By the 1950s, Du Pont was at the forefront of research into a myriad of applications derived from research in its laboratories, providing literally hundreds of new products for business, industrial, personal and leisure use. ‘Better living through chemistry’ became an often-quoted dogma of the new capabilities of science which allowed people to live better lives, be more comfortable and safer in their homes and workers throughout all industries to function more effectively. Teflon, Rayon, Lycra, Kevlar, Corian and many other creations improved how people lived while altering the landscape of society. As the company celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2002, CEO Chad Holliday’s letter to shareholders stated it well: “Our heritage of science and discovery has delivered products and technologies that have helped feed, clothe, shelter and heal people for generations… we set in motion the materials revolution that has transformed the look, feel and structure of the world we live in.”

       Take a look around. The things you see today- in your home, your office, your car, at the country club, the gym, the concert hall and many other venues- exist largely because a young man named du Pont 216 years ago had an idea and put it into motion, changing the course of history.

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. His nine books focus on American history. His newest work, titled Hemingway, Cuba and the Great Blue River explores the people, places and things the Nobel Prize winning author loved about the island and nearby Gulf Stream. Gene can be contacted by e-mail at His website is

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Value of Labor and Ideas

       As we approach Labor Day 2018, this author is looking back 40 years to 1978, when a new adventure began- graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin. Training to become a petroleum geologist, my graduate education was not only the most arduous, laborious effort I'd experienced to that time- it was a transforming event in my life. Very few worthwhile accomplishments occur from chance; most are the result of hard work and dedication. On this Labor Day weekend, a look at the nature of work- and the inspiration that creates great achievements- is in order.

The University of Texas at Austin

       Work can be physical, mental or a combination of both. "Pure" physical labor like digging ditches or stacking boxes still requires a degree of mental exercise. Mental work- efforts of the imagination, thorough analysis and creativity can produce startling results like cures for serious diseases, great works of art and music, technologies which see inside the atom and explore the realms of the universe. Labor- both physical and mental- has led the ascent of mankind from its earliest humble origins to modern society in the 21st century. From the wheel to the international space station, the transcontinental railroad to the internet- the toil of labor has led to the ongoing progression of mankind.

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, meeting at Promontory Point, Utah, 1869

The International Space Station

       So on this Labor Day, take a look around. Examine your own labors over the years and the projects you have accomplished, as well as those of family, friends, inventors, statesmen, artists, musicians, engineers, doctors, physicists, researchers and everyone from the man who collects your trash to the physician who protects your health. It is all possible because they each put forth the labor to achieve something worthwhile in building a better world...

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The History of America in One Family

       As an historian, I'm continually fascinated by the people and events which have shaped our heritage. America was begun as an idea for self-government, a place where people, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, could start a new life and make something for themselves, create a 'new life' much better than what they had known before. The du Pont family is perhaps the greatest example of this, Pierre Samuel du Pont arriving in America on January 1, 1800 seeking shelter from the tyranny he had known in France. His descendants- notably E.I. du Pont and his heirs- started a gunpowder business which literally changed the world.

Pierre Samuel du Pont, the patriarch of the du Pont family

       The history of the du Pont family is a subject which could easily encompass dozens of volumes, yet the most important thing to know is that they were entrepreneurs hoping to build a better life and succeed in a new land, shielded from the obstructions and violence of Europe. Turning a hunting trip into the kernel of an idea- a plan to make higher quality gunpowder- E.I. du Pont started his manufacturing complex on the banks of the Brandywine River outside Wilmington, Delaware in 1802. From humble beginnings, an enterprise that would become one of the largest corporations in the world began- and succeeded- for more than two centuries, spanning the globe with its products and innovations.

E.I. du Pont, the founder of the Du Pont Company

       The story of du Pont really is in many ways the story of America. Not many people know that the du Ponts were instrumental in the creation of our republic- helping to bring about the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War. Later members of the du Pont family befriended several of the Founding Fathers- Jefferson, Franklin and Alexander Hamilton among them. Hamilton became the du Pont family attorney- a fact somewhat unrecognized in the literature and in many academic circles. The du Ponts had a hand in crafting the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States. Later the Du Pont Company supplied crucial gunpowder used in every conflict from the War of 1812 up through World War II. Their many innovative products, including nylon used in parachutes for Allied soldiers fighting the Nazis allowed western democracies to triumph over evil, securing a safer and better world.

Logo used by Du Pont for its many innovations

The legacy of the Du Pont Company is based on a simple product- gunpowder

       So while it may seem a bit simplistic to say that one family had a major influence on American history- in the case of the du Ponts, it is true. This story is captured eloquently in many books, notable Du Pont: From the Banks of the Brandywine to Miracles of Science by Adrian Kinnane. This author is about to begin a three-part series of articles on this topic- with the possibility of a future book on this subject, highlighting this fascinating story that every American should know. 

"Du Pont: From the Banks of the Brandywine to Miracles of Science" by Adrian Kinnane

Saturday, August 11, 2018

America: The Last Best Hope

"America: The Last Best Hope", Volume I, by William J. Bennett

       For many people, history is boring. It reminds them of that teacher they had in fourth grade who put them to sleep- and convinced them that the subject was about as exciting as watching plants grow. Yet, every so often, an author or historian captures the attention of his (or her) readers with a narrative so well written, so fascinating and filled with critical information, conveyed in an easy-to-read style that people change their minds and say: "That is really interesting!" Such is the case with the two-volume work America: The Last Best Hope by William J. Bennett, the Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan.

The Louisiana Purchase, signed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803

       How do you make history "come alive"? By writing in a conversational style that makes readers feel as if they're sitting around a dinner table, or even a campfire, chatting over a cup of coffee about subjects they never knew, but always had some interest in. You keep readers' attention by filling the narrative with details that illuminate the past, displaying scenes of epic events with clarity- using vital information often overlooked by most historians. William J. Bennett achieves this level of mastery in this two-volume work, which covers America from the early colonial period through President Reagan's second term.

President Ulysses S. Grant on the U.S. $50 bill

       Bennett's narrative should be of interest to anyone seeking a more thorough understanding of this experiment in democracy we call America. From Thomas Jefferson's crowning achievement as President- the Louisiana Purchase- to his utter failure with the Embargo of 1807... to Ulysses S. Grant's unshakable integrity despite being surrounded by self-serving scoundrels... to the fact that Hubert Humphrey's family background was rooted in the pharmacy business (a fact which he used in a complaint against political factions aligned against him), readers will be thrilled to learn that politics and government are often filled with humorous episodes and anecdotes which go unreported.

Senator Hubert Humphrey, whose family was in the pharmacy business

       This author thoroughly enjoyed both volumes of America: The Last Best Hope. Bennett is a learned man, a gifted writer- and a great storyteller- something that should never be overlooked by persons wishing to convey history in a meaningful way. The story he tells- the heritage of this great experiment in freedom- should fascinate any citizen because... it is the story of us all...

President Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate, admonishing Soviet President Gorbachev: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Day That Changed the World

       On August 6, 1945 the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber dropped the world's first atomic weapon on Hiroshima, Japan on the orders of U.S. President Harry Truman in an attempt to end World War II. The Japanese were relentless during the war, killing and terrorizing hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers and civilians throughout the Far East, vowing to never surrender. The bomb- the direct result of the top secret Manhattan Project started under President Franklin Roosevelt- immediately killed 80,000 people, injuring 35,000; another 60,000 would die later from the effects of nuclear fallout. Despite the devastation, which included thousands of structures destroyed, Japanese Emperor Hirohito refused to end the war. It would take another horrific bomb dropped three days later on the Japanese city of Nagasaki to prompt the Japanese to give up their fight.

       Historians and geopolitical observers have debated these events for decades, some arguing that nuclear weapons can never be justified under any circumstances, others (mostly military experts) noting that this use of nuclear weapons DID end the war, which had raged for almost six years and taken millions of lives. Some people today, in the year 2018 say that there are no circumstances which could possibly justify their usage, regardless of war. Truman knew that the war would rage on for years, the Japanese never surrendering, unless he did something drastic to cause them to relent. More war would mean tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of American lives being lost- and this was unacceptable to him. It is this historian's view that, while the results of the bombings were horrible and essentially unimaginable to us today, Truman made the right decision. Japan surrendered days later, a ceremony aboard the USS Missouri with General Douglas MacArthur overseeing the historic event.

       The lessons of history are often hard to learn. Sometimes we need to see horror so that we can prevent even greater ones from occurring in the future. It is ironic that today Japan is an ally of the United States. Not many people dwell on the fact that Japan brutally attacked our sailors at Pearl Harbor, killing thousands on that day in December 1941. We have the perspective of history now which allows us to review the past, learn from our mistakes and make a better world. On this historic anniversary, let us say a simple prayer for all those who perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and throughout World War II... to let them know we have learned our lessons well...

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Region: 
Crucible for Independence and the American Economy

       Of all the thirteen original British colonies in North America, Pennsylvania stands at the head of the pack. Pennsylvania was the only one which had all the critical ingredients in abundance for economic growth over the decades following the Declaration of Independence: coal, petroleum, timber and iron ore, all of which fueled the Industrial Revolution. No other state had these raw materials in such abundance. In fact, Pennsylvania was the home of the nation's iron (and later, steel) industry, well before the Mesabi Range in Michigan brought crucial resources to the nation. The home of the nation's oil industry was not in Texas- as many people might guess- but in Pennsylvania, where in 1859, "Colonel" Edwin Drake drilled the country's first oil well. Aside from leading the nation in the production of natural resources for 100 years- Pennsylvania's (and the colonies') largest city- Philadelphia was the crucible for the independence movement. Both the Declaration and the U.S. Constitution were created and signed in Philadelphia.

Drake's oil well, which fueled the Industrial Revolution
Colonial Philadelphia, the largest city in the British North American colonies

       It is no wonder that thousands of people flocked to Philadelphia- the largest city in the America- for work, for opportunity, for the chance to lead a better life. After his shop was trashed by anarchists revolting against King Louis XVI in Paris, E.I. du Pont and family came to America to start a new life- and began their powder works operations on the banks of the Brandywine Creek in 1802. The du Ponts were friends with some of the Founding Fathers- including President Thomas Jefferson. The family participated in a small way in the Louisiana Purchase and later supplied gunpowder and explosives for every war from the War of 1812 up through World War II. No other family can lay claim to as much influence in the history of American growth and independence as the du Ponts- and their homes around the city of Wilmington, Delaware are a showcase for that history. A brief visit to Nemours- the palatial estate built by Alfred I. du Pont highlights some of these important connections.

Nemours Estate outside Wilmington, Delaware

       Living in the Brandywine Valley outside Philadelphia is a historian's dream. Aside from the Battle of the Brandywine which raged nearby, Valley Forge and many other important sites sit nearby. The area has numerous museums displaying this rich heritage- and anyone wishing to know more about our colonial history should take the time to visit the region. Within 50 miles of Philadelphia lie dozens of fascinating buildings and sites to explore. As an historian, I feel blessed to live in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, just down the road from Brandywine Battlefield and not far from nearly all these important locations.

Battle of the Brandywine
The Declaration of Independence

       So- if you're looking for a place to explore and want to get in touch with America's heritage, you cannot do better than a visit to Philadelphia and the many surrounding areas so rich in our history. Make it at least a two to three day trip, minimum- if you want to experience it all. You'll come away with a much richer understanding of the roots of the American system, our economy and our way of life. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

What is the proper role of government?

"If men were angels, there would be no need for government..."
       -- James Madison, "Father of the U.S. Constitution"

       From ancient times, when pharaohs and kings ruled with unshakable authority over thousands of their poor, uneducated constituents to the present day when the notion of a king or queen seems a throwback to a less civilized era, people have discussed the true nature and role of government. Historians, philosophers and social scientists have asked the question: "Why do we need government?" The answer, although rooted in the complexity of the human soul (as Madison hinted) is relatively simple. We need a system under which people can live their lives in freedom, without fear of an overbearing dictator or persecution, to pursue their chosen objectives absent an intrusive third party destructive to their aims.

The Magna Carta

       Perceptions of government have evolved dramatically over the centuries. In the year 1215, barons in England revolting against the king drew up the Magna Carta, now recognized as one of the foundational documents of western civilization. Residents in the thirteen American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s felt the strong arm of King George III and the British Parliament- and reacted by starting a revolution which changed the course of human history. Philosophers from Aristotle and Socrates to Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu have opined on the proper role of government in human affairs- and the debate continues today. 

The French political philosopher Montesquieu

       President Abraham Lincoln said “The legitimate object of government is to do for... people whatever they need... but can not do... for themselves..." Recently some in the United States have called for greater government involvement in people's lives; completely free health care, free education up through the college level, a guaranteed income and many other benefits. FACT CHECK: Nothing in life is FREE. Whenever someone states that the government provides something for free, everyone must realize that while there may not be an immediate charge or cost to that person, someone is paying for (or subsidizing) it, almost always through higher taxes, fees or other forms of revenue generation. While it is tempting to think that the government will provide some things for us at no charge, we must always ask two questions: 1) Who is really paying for this?and 2) Should I be providing this for myself? After thoughtful consideration, the most logical answers are: 1) other people ARE paying for it and 2) a person should think very carefully before taking advantage of anything advertised as "FREE". 

       Economists have long espoused the concept of price elasticity of demand: if something has a very low cost and is desirable, people will utilize ever greater quantities of it; if the price is high, demand for that item (or service) will be lessened. Those who propose FREE health care, free college education, a guaranteed income and other government-supported initiatives are ignoring something very basic: there is a COST for everything and demand for anything labeled as FREE will be essentially unlimited. Having the government provide services which are generally in high demand- and label them as FREE is an invitation to fiscal disaster and an ever increasing role of government in the lives of all citizens. 

James Madison, considered by many historians as the "Father of the Constitution"

       The Founding Fathers revolted against what they felt was unacceptable government intervention in their lives. America was founded on the idea that people should have a direct voice in the operations and the limitations of government- and a say in how much intervention (in the form of taxes and government guidelines) is warranted and necessary. The U.S. Constitution was created to delineate- and limit- the authority and powers of government- and the first Ten Amendments (now known as the Bill of Rights) restrict governmental powers and codify the rights and privileges of ordinary citizens. 

       The French philosopher Montesquieu stated that "Government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another..." Montesquieu meant that no man should be afraid of other citizens OR representatives of government. Montesquieu had a strong influence on the thinking of James Madison and the other Founding Fathers. Madison WAS right. If men were angels, we would not need government. Reasonable people can disagree on the proper extent of the role government should take in our lives. Those wanting smaller, less intrusive government often find themselves strongly opposed to people wanting to expand government's role. However, it is highly likely that if Madison and the other Founding Fathers were alive today, touring 21st century America, most of them would be shocked by the extent that government has grown- and the level of its intervention into the lives of its citizens. 

The United States Constitution

       It is this author's view that- as Lincoln said- government should not do for people what they can and should do for themselves. Having government maintain essential functions (military, police, healthy, clean food, air and water, safe pharmaceuticals, workplace and public safety, etc.) is fair and reasonable, but any "overreach" into the personal lives of citizens should be very limited and avoided. The truly helpless and indigent should receive assistance whenever possible; we are a rich enough country to help those who cannot afford it due to no fault of their own (physical or mental handicap, disasters, etc.). By maintaining fair, but strict limits on the role and intervention of government in our lives, we guarantee that personal freedoms are not infringed and society functions with a greater degree of self-sufficiency- exactly what the Founding Fathers envisioned.