Friday, March 17, 2017

Hetchy Hetchy classroom discussion


We had a very interesting discussion about the Hetch Hetchy dam controversy in my HIS 207 American Environmental History class last night at FRCC. Each student had a two page excerpt of a primary source document surrounding the public debate, including comments by the Marsdon Manson, James R. Garfield, John Raker, William Colby, John Muir, and several magazine editorials that favored or opposed the dam. Three main points of consensus emerged among the students by the end of the class.

 
1. They responded well to the dam proponents who generally supported their arguments with facts, especially dollar estimates of costs and benefits. While they liked John Muir’s salty attack on the dam proponents, they generally dismissed his writing as emotional and lacking the same objectivity of the proponents. The unique natural beauty argument did not hold sway.

2. As was clear from our National Park Service Hetch Hetchy timeline there was a direct connection between the dam and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Two months before the earthquake, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to abandon the pursuit of Hetch Hetchy. The devastating earthquake and its fires gave the project new life. Students found this both interesting, because they were unaware of the connection before, and compelling, because it provided a sound claim in their view that the city needed an accessible water supply quickly. They were a little more than chagrinned to see at the end of the time line that it took 20 years to get the water flowing to San Francisco!


3.They definitely sensed some elitism in the arguments of dam opponents. Protecting a valley that relatively few would see did not compare favorably to the benefit gained by the entire city, in their opinion.

I was a little surprised how much the class seemed to tilt in favor of the advocates of the dam.
Granted, this was hardly a deep dive into the event. Nor did I supply any photographs that might have won them over. In most books that I have read, and with most other historians with whom I have discussed the Hetch-Hetchy controversy, it is self-evident that Muir was on the right side, so I was a little taken aback. The lesson for me is to not count out the ghost of Gifford Pinchot!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Xenophobia in American History

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, in part, because he expressed the thoughts of millions of Americans who fear immigrants, especially those from the Middle East and south of the Rio Grande River. Within a week of his inauguration President Trump is giving his supporters some of what they demanded by implementing restrictions on accepting refugees and announcing that his administration will construct a wall between the United States and Mexico. For those of us who believe in an open, tolerant, and welcoming society, this is very disappointing to say the least. It rejects the vision President Ronald Reagan expressed in his first inaugural address about the United States being the "exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not have our freedom."(1) Instead, the current administration is turning its back on the Reagan vision, on American exceptionalism, as Charles Krauthammer points out here, and the promise that the United States offers the rest of the world. It may be unfashionable to admit this, but I do believe that the United States is an exceptional nation with a global mission; it is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "the last best, hope of earth." (2)

My own personal opinions aside, the United States has a long and ugly history of xenophobia, regardless of what may be carved into the Statue of Liberty. There is a large gap between our ideals and reality. Americans may agree that past generations of immigrants built this country, but they were often no more welcome than those fleeing to our country in our own day. The current xenophobic turn, however disturbing, is just as much a part of American mainstream history as immigration itself. Here are some examples. There are many more.

  • Even before independence, there was a suspicion against German immigrants in certain colonies, as represented by the writings of Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. 
  • 1798 Immigration Acts to limit the freedoms of of French and Irish immigrants who were thought to harbor revolutionary ideas or to be the agents of foreign governments. 
  • Before Muslims were unpopular, Catholics were considered to be the most dangerous group to the United States. This became a political movement with the rise of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s, but anti-Catholicism long preceded it. Irish Catholics were thought to be especially dangerous because they were hungry, impoverished, single, and largely illiterate. At least the German Catholics, in the minds of American nativists, tended to come as families and were more educated. 
  • An influx of Chinese immigration in the years after the Civil War was met with brutal hostility that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although it was initially for a period of ten years, it was faithfully extended every decade. 
  • Fears of "new" and strange immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, including large numbers of  Greeks, Italians, Jews, Poles, and Russians led to a renewed xenophobia in the late 1890s through World War I. This included more stringent testing of immigrants, attempts at restriction, and patriotic societies. Even progressive institutions, such as settlement houses and public schools, considered assimilation of these new immigrants to be among their most important objectives. Not that there is anything wrong with a common culture, but these efforts could be cruel and heavy-handed attacks that completely delegitimizing the culture of the immigrants, casting them as backwards, dirty, ignorant, and lazy, among other unattractive qualities. 
  • Fears of immigrants during World War I led to a second series of Alien and Sedition Acts that targeted German immigrants and those with socialist or anarchist leanings as disloyal. This peaked with the Red Scare of 1919. 
  • The anti-immigrant sentiment peaked in the 1920s with the National Origins Acts, which instituted a visa system and greatly curtailed the the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. Furthermore, the quotas allowed from each nation were set to 1890. This tilted the flow away from eastern and southern Europe and back towards northern Europe. 
  • Changing the law was not good enough for many Americans who were were concerned by perceived threats from immigrants in their own neighborhoods who would not assimilate. Nativists bound together in the KKK, sometimes referred to as the second klan to distinguish it from the earlier version active during Reconstruction. This second klan was largely a northern, urban phenomenon that attacked Catholics, Jews, and other groups that they considered "undesirable."
  • With fewer Chinese to kick around, Japanese immigrants attracted the xenophobic sentiment on the west coast. They endured much discrimination, including segregation. Like the Chinese, the Japanese were believed to be resistant to the charms of Americanization. Fears that these unassimilated immigrants and their children who were born and educated in the United States would act as a fifth column after the Pearl Harbor attack led them to be interned (i.e. deprived of their rights, stripped of their businesses, homes, wealth, and property and placed in concentration camps isolated from any interaction with the larger community) during World War II. 
  • The National Origins Act was adopted to the Cold War with the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. 
  • Although the National Origins system was overthrown with more open Immigration Act of 1965, discrimination persists as is evident by the experiences of migrant workers. 

(1) Paul Boyer, ed., Reagan as President: Contemporary Views of the Man, His Politics, and His Policies (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990), 33.
(2) Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 364.



Sunday, January 8, 2017

2016: The Genealogical Recap

Whatever else happened over the past year, 2016 was a great year in genealogy for me.  Here are some of my 2016 genealogical breakthroughs:

  • I finally got the line of my grandmother's mother's line, the Philbin family, straitened out. This was only possible because Ireland recently released civil records from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These records are particularly valuable because they contain much more information than previously available through church records. The inclusion of the town names and parents's names in wedding records allowed me to zero in on the correct Philbins. These records have also bulked up my tree by allowing me to add more extended family members that I can prove a connection to through the civil records of Ireland.
  • One of the biggest mysteries to me was the death dates of my grandmother's parents, Patrick Cosgrove and Bridget Philbin of Tullinahoo, county Mayo. With these records I was able to determine their death dates. The death records list the person who reported the death as well as the cause of death, which was more-or-less guessed at by the person reporting the death. In other words, they offer a clue, but aren't necessarily conclusive. What struck me in an emotional way, as few genealogical records have, was the discovery that my grandmother reported her mother's death and provided asthma as the cause of death. My grandmother suffered from chronic asthma, which was passed down to her son, my uncle, who had a really bad case of it. My grandmother's coughing fits were one of the distinctive sounds of my childhood. 
  • One of the frustrating things about genealogy is that you can learn about a person's life from the records, such as their profession, age, cause of death, etc., but not about their personality. One cannot determine from the census record if the individual was a good parent, liked by neighbors, friendly, introverted or extroverted, interested in hobbies, etc. One of the truly best moments of 2016 (not just genealogy) occurred when a distant cousin who's mother knew my great grandparents (the aforementioned Patrick Cosgrove and Bridget Philbin) provided some details about them, including his nickname of "Cog" and her's of "Beezie." What a gift to know this! My grandmother shared little about her parents. She wanted to leave her impoverished childhood behind when she came to the United States after a brief stay in England. 
  • I finally solved a longstanding mystery on the Dehler side. There is a crypt with the name Dehler on it not far from where my parents and grandparents are buried in St. John's Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, New York. It was long a part of family lore that these people were
    related to us, but no-one  seemed to know how the connection. In April I discovered that they crypt belonged to family of Clemens Dehler, brother to my great-grandfather Aureus Dehler. I have never located Aureus's immigration record, but he consistently stated across multiple records that he immigrated to the United States from Hessen, Germany in 1872. Clemens came to the United States before his younger brother, but he was very inconsistent in stating when he did so. 
  • Over the course of the year I found two connections to World War I, although not direct ones. Through the Ireland civil records, I determined that two of my great-grandmother's (again Bridget Philbin) cousins died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. Brothers William and John Philbin served in two different regiments, but met the same sad fate. What an unimaginably horrible day for their parents. On my father's side, his mother's father's brother, Robert F. Warmers, served in the 307th regiment, 154th brigade, 77th division. He was in the same brigade as the famous "Lost Battalion" but was not in that unit. He was in the unit that relieved them (I will post more about the 77th division in the future). Better still, I met his great-grandson who shared a copy of a letter that R.F. Warmers wrote his mother, my great-grandmother, Emily Christine Petry. 
  • This summer I visited Lutheran All Faith cemetery in Middle Village (not far from St. John's)
    and found the gravesite of my great-great-grandparents, Louis Warmers and Anna Marie Stroebel (R.F. Warmers's grandparents). The cemetery is not in good shape and I could not navigate it. Thankfully, one of the landscaping crew helped me locate their stone (to the right). Next time I visit Long Island, I will try to find time to take some pictures for Find-A-Grave. 
  • Although not a direct ancestor of mine, I got some more information about John Kilgallon, an American student of Patrick Pearse at St. Enda's who participated in the 1916 Easter Rising.  
I hope to build on these discoveries in 2017. 









Monday, December 26, 2016

Henry Adams's 2016

I must admit that I have never been a huge fan of The Education of Henry Adams. Adams comes across to me as the guy who rants on Facebook about how everything always sucks. Yes, you know who I am talking about. We all have at least one of these people in our social media relationships. Bear in mind that I first read Adams in pre-internet and pre-social media existence, but the sentiment that he was a chronic complainer who cast all in the bleakest terms. Worst of all, to me at least, is that Adams was an entitled elitist from one of America's premier families. He tarred and feathered President Ulysses Grant most vigorously in The Education. "The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant," Adams wrote, "was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin." 1. Ouch! Granted that Adams was writing about himself and using only several episodes from Grant's Administration to tell his own memoir, The Education shaped historiography of the eighteenth president throughout the twentieth century. If you want to see an example of a twentieth-century mugwump/progressive historian using Adams as a guide, read Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish, a biography of Grant's secretary-of-state. Nevins gave no quarter. As one of my history instructors at St. John's University used to say, "give the poor guy a break, he's dead." While I would never posit that Grant was a great or near-great president, I have felt for some time that he deserves to be considered a better president than how Nevins and other twentieth century historians depicted him. Brooks Simpson, Jean Edward Smith, Joan Waugh, and Ronald White, among others, have given Grant a more sympathetic treatment in recent years. A disappointed office seeker himself, Adams focused on Grant's appointments, which, to be honest, were unconventional. On the other hand, Adams gave almost no attention to Reconstruction, the area where twenty-first century historians are giving Grant more credit than in the past. Having said all this, in the last couple of months I feel a growing sense of sympathy for Henry Adams. In the wake of the nasty, brutish, and, protracted 2016 presidential election, I think I better understand the pessimism with which Adams viewed his own times. 
 
1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 249.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Classroom discussion on Frederick Douglass, The Narrative Life


I like to assign a guided book review in the US survey I (pre-Columbus to 1877) night course that I teach at Front Range Community College. The students complete a ten page paper based on the book and we spend a class session discussing it. Honestly, this is the most enjoyable class of the entire semester for me. I have assigned books on the Federalist Papers, John Brown’s Raid, the 1960s Civil Rights movement, the Black Death, and the Holocaust, for this and other courses I have taught in the past. This semester I assigned Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Although written in 1845, it is very readable, powerful, graphic, and direct. Douglass was the most famous fugitive slave of the day and he dared to reveal that the slaveholders’ perception of themselves as enlightened paternalistic protectors of their slaves was nothing less than a poorly designed and cynical self-deceit. Instead of caring for their “property” by providing medical care, housing, clothing, food, and guidance as slaveholders publicly professed, Douglass showed how they violently abused and dehumanized the slaves. The Narrative Life recounts, among other things, that slaves received an inadequate quality and quantity of food, clothing, and housing from their masters. Nakedness, lack of bedding, and eating from a trough were among the methods that the slaveholders used to dehumanize their slaves. The students receive a much better depiction of slavery from Douglass than they can from the textbook or my lectures.

My fellow teachers know that each class or cohort seems to have its own personality, and this definitely comes out in discussions such as these. Previous classes have honed in on Douglass’s fight with Covey, his escape, and the dehumanizing nature of slavery to both slaves and slave holders. In the discussion this past Monday night, my current class focused more specifically on Douglass’s perseverance, resilience, and determination to escape slavery. They read The Narrative Life as a self-help manual that imparted some important life lessons. It was more than a history text to them.

The most interesting comments, however, questioned Douglass’s version of history. Some students felt that Douglass portrayed himself as the hero of his own life and gave little credit to others for any help they might have given him. Although brief, our discussion on the inherent subjectivity of autobiographies and memoirs touched upon the possibility that not everything Douglass wrote was necessarily true. Events could have been misrepresented by design or unintentionally. Douglass, too, had biases and political motives. We also considered how Douglass could have been protecting those who might have helped him. Southerners would strike back at Douglass by attacking those they could get their hands on, if they only knew who to attack. Overall, I was heartened by how much they got out of this book about slavery and American history, and, also, their cautious approach to consuming information. We need to be on our guard now more than ever.   

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Rest in Peace Ralph Branca

Rest in Peace Ralph Branca. The former major league pitched died on November 23 at the age of ninety. Branca compiled 88 wins to 68 loses over a twelve year major league career with the Dodgers, Tigers, and Yankees. His best season was in 1947 when he won 21 games. Yet, Branca will be remembered for only one moment on October 3, 1951 when he surrendered a walk-off home run later to be dubbed "the shot heard around the world" to Giants slugger Bobby Thomson, the Staten Island Scot. The moment will forever be linked in our neuro-associations with Giants announcer Russ Hodges screaming, "The Giants win the pennant!" Although I was not born until nearly twenty years after the event, it is just as much a part of my memory because I have seen and heard the epic replay so many times. Even worse for my father, who was ten years old in 1951 and diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, to have to re-live that terrible movement. He never said a word, but he got red. As a Yankees fan who was the same age when the Yankees staged their epic comeback in 1978, I understood that Thomson was the "Bucky F***in Dent" of the 1950s. However, I don't think that Red Sox pitcher Mike Torrez sits in the memory as much as Branca. Perhaps, the Dent home run was such a freak occurrence that Torrez was viewed to be as much a victim as anyone else in Fenway that sunny day. On the other hand, Branca spent the rest of his life in the shadow of that one pitch. His life defined in public memory, quite literally, as the summation of only a couple of seconds during a ninety year life. There is something not fair about that. From an historical perspective, I think he took all the blame for the Dodgers's epic collapse in 1951. They were up by over a dozen games in August when the season was only 154 games. They weren't supposed to lose! Branca took all the heat on that one pitch for all that frustration that built up in Brooklyn, as if he lost the threw away the whole season on that pitch.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

A trivial error in Jimmy Carter's White House Diary?

Browsing through Jimmy Carter's White House Diary  I came across the following entry made on October 5, 1979: "Carl Yastrzemski came by, and I congratulated him on his 3,400 hits and 450 home runs. He's a nice guy." The only problem with this entry is that at the end of the 1979 season Yaz had 3,009 hits and 404 homers. Why the discrepancy? In the grand scheme of a presidential diary gives witness to an eventful term in office that included a stagnant economy, rabid inflation, energy shortages, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran hostage crisis, and an historic agreement between Egypt and Israel, among many other events, a baseball player's stats are a trivial matter. That the numbers President Carter provided in his diary are essentially the numbers that Yaz compiled at the conclusion of his career in 1983 (he had 3,419 hits and 452 home runs) inclines me to assume that there was probably some fact checking error in the publication process. As an historian, however, it is always alarming to find such errors, even if they  seem unimportant. However, I have no doubt that Yaz is a nice guy.

The presidential daily diary on the Jimmy Carter Library website for this date notes: " The purpose of the meeting was to congratulate Mr. Yastrzemski for becoming the first American League baseball player to hit 400 home runs and 3,000 hits in a lifetime." After the three minute meeting with Yaz, his wife, agent, a friend, and two others, representatives of the Lief Ericsson Society International were shuffled in for their three minute session in the oval office.