Saturday, January 26, 2019

Review of Jeffrey Rosen's William Howard Taft

If Americans remember William Howard Taft (1857-1930), the twenty-seventh president of the United
States, for anything it is for being stuck in a bathtub. In part, Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (which I cannot recommend highly enough for a visit), seeks to rescue Taft from this infamous place in popular memory by reminding the reader in this contribution to the American Presidents series that Taft was a great American with a long list of unparalleled accomplishments, that included service as solicitor general, circuit court judge, high commissioner of the Philippines, secretary of war, president of the United States, and chief justice of the United States. Taft was certainly not a passive character. He was a striving, ambitious man, who was thin-skinned to the point where he became capable, as Theodore Roosevelt recognized, of intense hatred. As a young man he thrashed a report who had written a story critical of his revered father, Alphonso Taft.  

Rosen positions Taft as the anti-Theodore Roosevelt, a man who famously changed his political positions throughout his career. Instead, Taft was remarkably consistent from his earliest legal cases through his presidency and as chief justiceship. Both men had very different perceptions of the presidency. While Roosevelt believed that he could do anything that was not expressly forbidden by the constitution, Taft argued that he could only do what was expressly permitted. For example, Taft felt that under article 2, section 3, he could only recommend items for Congress to consider, and not to try to persuade legislators either individually or collectively toward adopting specific measures. Roosevelt, of course, saw no such barrier to the president exerting as much influence as he could to shape legislation. Finally, unlike the Roosevelt who selectively prosecuted the Sherman Anti-Trust Act according this his own definition of good and bad business combinations, the conservative Taft followed the dictates of the statutes and his administration filed more suits than his progressive predecessor. 

Taft seems bland and overshadowed by both his predecessor Roosevelt and his successor Woodrow Wilson, two of the most important and progressive presidents in American history. The fact that Taft suffered the worst return of any president seeking re-election in the history of our nation, only adds to this perception. Taft is considered to be one of the unhappiest of our chief executives. The signature issue of his administration, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, is traditionally portrayed a complete fiasco that Taft compounded with one of the biggest presidential gaffes of the twentieth century. Rosen presents an alternative view. He argues that Taft was an exceptional administrator who wanted the federal government to function efficiently. This is certainly an underappreciated attribute in evaluating presidents. We certainly could use someone with Taft’s sensibilities in the oval office today! Rosen devotes considerable time to the tariff revision and makes the case that it was significant accomplishment, even claiming that Taft successfully tackled an issue that Roosevelt dared not touch. While there is a certain element of truth in this, Roosevelt was a master politician who wielded threats of tariff revision to build legislative majorities and support for his administration on issues that concerned him. In truth, he really did not care about the tariff. In tackling such a complex issue with a fractured party (thanks in some part to Roosevelt), the borderline politically inept Taft put his own administration on the defensive from day one and struck a fault line that continued to divide his party right through the 1912 election and beyond. Instead of seeing Taft as out of place between two progressives, Rosen points to some continuities. One example, is Rosen’s argument that some of Taft’s foreign policy initiatives like the World Court and the reciprocity treaty with Canada (although it was not ratified by Canada) were harbingers not only of Wilsonianism but much more broadly of American policy later in the twentieth century. Admittedly, it seems that Rosen does overreach in some of his claims. Personally, I wish he would have addressed Peri Arnold’s claim in Remaking the Presidency(2009) that Taft’s difference from his progressive predecessor and successor was somewhat due to the fact that he had a antiquated nineteenth century concept of the presidency, whereas Roosevelt and Wilson recognized how the office had changed in the early years of the twentieth century. Rosen is much more convincing in describing Taft’s reformist tendency to the institution of the Supreme Court. His innovative reforms, which he aggressively lobbied Congress to pass, substantially altered the focus of the federal judicial system. 

Circling back to where I began this short review, Rosen notes that Taft was at his heaviest when he was in
the White House. He was a classic stress eater who put on the pounds during his unhappy term. The stress and weight gain contributed to his sleep apnea, which caused him to fall doze off in embarrassing situations. But, in biographical terms, this was an aberration. While it is true that Taft struggled with his weight throughout his life, for the most part he exerted his strong will and self-control that allowed him to master his eating. He shed all the weight he had gained during his presidency as soon as he left the office. It serves Rosen’s interpretation to highlight this fact because Taft firmly believed that self-control was the one essential character trait necessary to a democracy. Taft lived this through his own daily battle with food and his waistline. 


Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Best/Worst 2018 (inspired by the McLaughlin Group)

For as long as I can remember, I have been watching the McLaughlin Group. I eagerly anticipated the  last two episodes of December, the best/worst of the year. While the show is not quite the same without its inimitable host (RIP John), I still consider it the best weekly political show.

Here are some of my best/worst for 2018. I tried not repeat answers given by the panelists.

Biggest Loser: Financial stability. Between the astronomical federal deficit and debt, increasing personal debt, skyrocketing healthcare costs, the "trade war" with China, and the see-sawing stock market, it looks like stability is a thing of the past.

Worst Politician: Baby Boomers. Yes, that's right, I am designating an entire generation as the worst politician. Whatever your political viewpoints might be, you have been fighting in the gutter for the last thirty years and succeeded in bringing the entire political system down to that level. You've warred on other generations, demonstrated an unprecedented generational narcissism, politicized the personal to the point where you cannot associate with people who disagree with you at all, and consider anyone who disagrees with you on every point to be a total moron deserving only contempt, among other things. Thanks!

Underreported Story: Good news. Yes, there has been some good news, but we are so caught up in seeing everything at all times as a disaster that we only focus on the negative and then wonder why we are in such a funk.

Overreported Story: The Amazon HQ2 search. This was particularly acute in Colorado, where I live, because it was supposedly on the short list of possible locations. It was a monstrously self-indulgent shakedown attempt for the most advantageous concessions from local governments. Local news, ratio, and television were all full of stories.

Bummest Rap: Millennials. I am a proud gen-Xer, but I feel that Millennials have gotten a bum rap. First off, Baby Boomers lump everyone who came after them as a Millennial, when they really mean Gen X, the Millennials, and gen Z (teens to early twenty-somethings). Millennials get tagged as frivolous whiners who waste their time on social media. However, I see a generation that is tolerant and willing push (i.e. expand) social boundaries, generous with their time and money to social commitments, and willing to think outside the box in many ways.

Sorry to See You Go: Ok, I have two candidates (several panelists made two selections for some categories). First, the White Rhinoceros. The last living member of the species died earlier this year. Like Martha the passenger pigeon and Lonesome George the Pinta tortoise, there was a last white rhino. It is always depressing when a species goes extinct. As Theodore Roosevelt said, it is like losing all the great works of art or literature from an artist or author. Sadly, species are becoming extinct faster than we can catalog them; meaning, that there are some who will pass from the earth that we will never even have identified. Second, Toys-R-Us, because shopping for toys online just flat out sucks.

Best Political Theater: Kevin Kruse's tweets. Princeton historian Kevin Kruse has taken on the awesome responsibility of using history to combat those who misuse the past to defend their political views, most notably Dinesh D'Souza.

Worst Political Theater: President Donald Trump's tweets. Awful stuff. Peppered with lies, distortions, and self-pity. The worst of it is that these tweets decide and announce important national policy, fire cabinet officers, and dominate the news cycle.




Monday, November 19, 2018

Pershing's Crusaders

Cross referencing my review from Michigan Wart Studies Review:

Richard S. Faulkner, Pershing's Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. Pp. 776. ISBN 978-0-7006-2373-0. 

On July 4, 1917 General John J. Pershing's, Commanding General of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), and his staff stopped before the Marquis de Lafayette's grave at the Picpus Cemetery in Paris. Colonel Charles Stanton, a member of Pershing's staff, captured the moment when he uttered the unforgettable phrase, "Lafayette, we are here." Although Pershing and Stanton were but a small vanguard of the AEF, over 2 million Americans would arrive in France charged by President Woodrow Wilson to “make the world safe for Democracy.” Who were the “we” of the AEF who came to re-pay the overdue debt to Lafayette? What were their experiences? Why did they enlist or how did they respond to conscription? How were they trained? What did they expect? These are some of the important questions Richard S. Faulkner, a professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, addresses in his sweeping Pershing's Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I

This is not a history of battles, command decisions, generalship, or politics. Pershing is mentioned briefly, usually only in reference to his orders. Other generals, President Woodrow Wilson, and Secretary of War Newton Baker are mentioned only in passing. Inspired Bell Wiley's classics Johnny Reb and Billy Yank– indeed, he dedicates the book in part to the Civil War author – Faulkner presents more of a social history of the Doughboy from his entry into service through to post-war occupation of Germany and subsequent return home.[1]In twenty-four chapters organized topically, Faulkner examines such Doughboy experiences as training camp, voyage across the Atlantic, instruction in Europe, learning how to use new weapons, interactions with Allied civilians and soldiers, anticipation anxiety, combat experiences, fear, patrols in no-man's land, illnesses, wounds, medical treatment and facilities, life as a prisoner of war and treatment of German prisoners, entertainment, and post-war adjustment.[2]He covers the basic needs of clothing, food and water, shelter, and sleep. The roles of ethnicity, morality, race, religion, and sex each receive their own distinct treatment. The preponderant emphasis is on the infantry soldier, for they made up the majority of the AEF, but airmen, artillerymen, chaplains, Marines, service of supply troops, and tankers, also receive attention. There were significant tensions between the infantry, who suffered higher rates of casualties and deprivation, and those whom they believed were living the easy life in the rear.

Pershing’s Crusadersconcentrates on the experiences of the rank and file soldiers.  Inexperienced officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) had to earn the respect of their men largely by sharing their experiences. Faulkner makes the point that the Doughboys, the product of a democratic society, considered their relationship to their commanders to be more of a social contract than one of blind obedience. Soldiers promised to follow officers who did not recklessly throw away their lives and who provided the necessities of life. Resistance to untested, replacement officers, for example, crippled the performance of the Fifth division in October 1918. 

Although chapters are arranged topically, they unfold chronologically and give the book the feel of a quick flowing narrative. For this reason it is a much faster read than one might think of a 776-page tome. While there are many facts and figures, they are presented judiciously. Instead, the author uses the experiences of individuals or groups to illustrate his points. This gives the reader a strong, almost personal connection to the Doughboys. The writing is well done, and Faulkner turns more than a few humorous passages. For example: 

Faulkner draws several important conclusions about the Doughboy's experience. He argues that the Doughboys, shaped by their unique experiences, played critical roles affected post-war social movements. Inspired by sense of contribution to a national cause and experience of greater social acceptance in France, African-American soldiers returned home committed to defending civil rights.[3]This is not a necessarily a novel claim, but Faulkner presents another view of race that has not received as much consideration. He notes that in the decade following the war, many white Doughboys joined the resurgent Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Unlike its Reconstruction forerunner, the 1920s KKK was urban, northern, and anti-immigrant. If the army took its responsibility to function as the melting pot for foreign-born and first generation recruits seriously, white solders, it seems, emerged with an unfavorable impression of their ethnic white comrades. 

Second, Faulkner argues that Doughboys "were pioneers of the American sexual revolution." (3) Wrenched from their quiet and safe small town lives, thrown together in camps with others from around the United States, shipped out from New York City, exposed to the looser sexual mores of French war time society, and faced with a battlefield death, the solid pre-war moral world of the Doughboys was shattered. Both American citizens and the government feared this would happen. In April 1917 moral crusaders who had been shutting down red light prostitution districts for a decade were given extensive authority to purge communities around training camps of sin and vice. The War Department created a morale branch to coordinate and monitor these anti-vice campaigns. The situation in France was quite different. French leadership tolerated and licensed prostitution. They criticized the AEF for its puritanical suppression of sexual activity. Unlike the Poilus who received condoms, Doughboys were scolded about the pitfalls of sexually transmitted diseases and how unfair it was to bring these dreaded illnesses home with them to their wives and girlfriends. Pragmatic concerns led the AEF to moderate its policy over time, but it never approached the openness of the French. Nor did repression work. There were 357,969 reported cases of venereal disease among American soldiers. (396)[4]Among their souvenirs and memories and battle scars, these men brought home looser sexual mores. 

However much as the shock and violence of war affected American soldiers, Faulkner praises the Doughboys for their successful resistance to the nihilism and dehumanization of the war.[5]He writes:

"Whether the doughboy viewed his German enemy as a lethal, harsh schoolmaster, a devious and deluded Hun, or a pitiful and dejected prisoner, he should be commended for his ability to overcome the vicious and dehumanizing propaganda of the era to treat his foe with humanity. Although the Americans sometimes gave into stereotypes and the passions of the war, it seems that these incidents were rather limited and not unique in the experiences of the war's other combatants." (324)

It is no surprise to those familiar with the topic that Faulkner is critical of the inadequate training that the Doughboys received. While Pershing's decision to focus on rifle tactics and open ground combat was partly responsible, a large measure of the failings to prepare troops could be attributed to logistics and poor planning.[6]To be blunt, the American army was an amateur operation. No plan existed for the rapid expansion, which leaves the student of the period to wonder what the War Department had been doing since 1914. One regiment of the 4thdivision, for example, arrived in France without ever having fired a shot during their training. Untrained officers did not know how or when to schedule eating breaks for their men. The M1917 uniform was poorly designed. The leg wrappings and puttees might have looked martial in photographs, but this ensemble cut off the circulation to feet that proliferated the spread of debilitating trench foot. Pershing's Crusadersis full of such examples that might have been avoided with greater consultation with our allies who had been at war for three years by the time the first elements of the AEF arrived in Europe.

Faulkner highlights another important contributing factor to the high rate of AEF casualties in the summer and fall 1918. If experienced and hardened NCOs are the backbone of any effective military, the United States had a weak spine during the Great War. With no cadre to call upon, inefficient NCO selection, and poor training exacerbated this deficiency and likewise contributed to the high casualty rates.

Pershing's Crusadersis the culmination of twenty years of work on the subject. Faulkner examined the diaries, letters, and photographs of thousands of Doughboys, amassing his own impressive private collection in the process. He is careful not to make unwarranted generalizations when unsupported by the facts, such as this summation of religious experience: 

"It is possible that most soldiers simply passed through the war without having their faith greatly altered by the experience at all," he wrote. "Unlike much else in the record of the doughboys' experiences, the record of their religious beliefs is too idiosyncratic and incomplete to make too many bold declarations on their spirituality." (430)

In the first chapter, Faulkner wrote that he "intended to give the reader an understanding of what it meant to serve as a Doughboy in the Great War." (2) Pershing's Crusaderssucceeds admirably in fulfilling this goal. It stands out among the recent monographs for its breadth and depth. Many will find this a valuable and entertaining read. Any historian or common reader with an interest in World War I, military history, the Progressive Era, and the 1920s, as well as genealogists seeking to understand the experiences of their ancestors, will find this an excellent source to understanding the lives of the American soldier at the defining moment of the twentieth century.  

Reviewed by Gregory J. Dehler, Front Range Community College


[1]Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank; the Common Soldier of the Union(Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1971); Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978).
[2]Faulkner finds that the World War I veterans felt stiffed by a stingy government. He does not carry that argument on as Jennifer Keene does to claim that these disappointed Doughboys lobbied for the G.I. Bill of Rights in the next world war. See Jennifer D. Keene, Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America, War, Society, Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
[3]Although unmentioned by Faulker, the 1919 Chicago race riot is one example. See William M. Tuttle, Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
[4]To the French this was evidence of American puritanical foolishness. It was proof that unprotected soldiers having sexual encounters with unregulated prostitutes cost the army millions of man hours and weakened its effectiveness as a fighting force.
[5]Using surveys as his main source, Edward Gutierez argues that it was only after they returned home did the AEF veteran fully understand the brutality of the war. See his Doughboys on the Great War: How American Soldiers Viewed Their Military Experience(Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2014), 15.
[6]American commanders felt vindicated by the successes of the German stormtrooper tactics in 1918, which they considered rifle-base tactics removed from the trenches. See Mark E. Grotelueschen,The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in World War I(Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 47

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Review of Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life by Thomas Cullen Bailey and Katherine Joslin.

Theodore Roosevelt (TR), twenty-sixth president of the United States, 1901-1909, was one of the greatest characters in American history. Like the image of him chiseled into Mount Rushmore, he has been carved into the cultural landscape as well. Commonplace items, like the Teddy Bear, an sayings, like “good to the last drop” trace their origin directly to TR. In addition to being remembered as one of the best and most innovative politicians in the nation’s history, he is recognized by many Americans as a pioneering conservationist, father, war hero, peacemaker, sportsman, advocate of the strenuous life, and spokesman on varied sundry causes. Roosevelt is a well-published subject and has been the subject of many books, ranging from life-long biographies to histories of his presidency to detailed studies of such aspects as his concept of masculinity, racial views, efforts to clean up the New York City vice district, and college football regulations, just to name but a few. He was as ubiquitous in life as he is in our memory. Thanks to Thomas Bailey and Katherine Joslin we now have a work dedicated to TR the man of letters, probably one of the most overlooked aspects of his multi-faceted life. 

And, TR was a man of letters. He was not merely a politician who wrote, but an author who engaged in politics throughout his life. There were no ghost writers at Sagamore Hill! The two facets of TR’s life, as Bailey and Joslin demonstrate, were intertwined throughout. The young man who wrote The Naval War of 1812 (1882) supported American naval expansion. The middle-aged man who penned The Winning of the West (1889-1899) and The Rough Riders (1899) advocated for an aggressive American foreign policy that included imperial expansion abroad. The older man demanded the United States intervene in the Great War in the pages of America and the World War (1915). As there was a Roosevelt Corollary in politics, there was a Roosevelt Literary Doctrine, as he mentioned in a letter to his sister in 1896. In essence, it is that writing should be done to inspire action. 

It is odd that TR the author should have received so little attention in the last century since his passing. He penned hundreds of articles, reviews, and other shorter works, over a dozen books, in addition to the over 150,000 letters he wrote. The authors point out that many of his so-called “posterity letters” as historians have come to dub letters so obviously intended to be read by future generations, as well as their recipient, were literary products themselves. His contemporaries were more appreciative of this than subsequent generations. Within a decade of his death, his entire corpus of writings was collected into a couple of multi-volume series of “Works.” 

Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life is organized chronologically. It places his writing and reading in the context of what was happening his life that that same time. This gives it a very personable feel. One can see TR taking writing assignments simply because he needed the money. It also allows the reader to see how TR developed as a writer. He struggled early on. His biography Thomas Hart Benton (1885) is unfocused and more about the subject of manifest destiny than about the individual whose life he was ostensibly chronicling. The first two volumes of the Winning of the West were sloppy. Several reviewers, including historian Frederick Jackson Turner, called him to the carpet for misusing his primary sources. The second two volumes demonstrated marked improvement. He comes of age as an author with The Rough Riders (1899). Finally, this approach allows the authors to compare accounts TR provided in his several autobiographical accounts with what actually happened. In Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914), for instance, TR wrote very confidently of events even as he had been delirious and unconscious. Where did he get that information from? There is no clear answer. His Autobiography (1913) is described as an apologia designed to explain and rationalize the actions of his presidency. If there is a cost to this approach it is that there is less analysis of topics that dominate current historiographical discussions of TR, such as his racism and how that affected his actions and policies.

Being a man of letters, however, is not simply about writing; it involves reading, intellectual engagement, and interaction with other authors. Bailey and Joslin amply prove the case that TR was such a man of letters. Despite the fact that TR famously read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina while in the Badlands, he did not confine himself solely to high-brow literature. In reality, he read widely and eclectically. To relax he devoured cheap detective novels, a genre not generally associated with the aristocratic TR. Non-fiction greatly interested him as well. Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1889), Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power on History (1890), and Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909), to name a few, deeply impacted TR’s political philosophy. 

Roosevelt was certainly an engaged member of the community of writers. He counted Owen Wister, Edith Wharton, and Henry Adams, among his closest friends. He corresponded with many more, dashing off letters of appreciation, encouragement, and sometimes criticism. During his presidency he was seen camping with John Burroughs and hiking Yosemite National Park with John Muir. Being Roosevelt, he also made his enemies. He despised Henry James for abandoning, as TR saw it, the United States for an expatriate’s life in Great Britain, and Mark Twain, whose anti-imperialism grated immensely on Roosevelt. 

As president, he certainly used the bully pulpit, as he referred to, to make pronouncements on authors and writing. Perhaps the greatest example was his vociferous attack on the “nature fakers” for writing what TR considered outlandish fictional accounts of wildlife passed on to the unsuspecting public as genuine natural history. No president had done anything like that before. He even attempted to re-write the language to make it more phonetic – or fonetic, as he would have preferred. He used his executive powers to benefit the literary community. He found civil service positions for writers he took a shine to. More broadly, he convinced Congress to re-write the copyright statutes that had been the law of the land since 1790. Congress obliged, and in the closing hours of his term, he signed the sweeping Copyright Act of 1909, something every writer in any medium should be very thankful for. 

Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life is an excellent work on a great man. One does not need to be fan of Roosevelt to appreciate it. Any lover of reading will enjoy its account of one of nation’s great and underappreciated authors and readers. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland, a presidential rivalry


In 1882 Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, was elected governor of New York by the largest margin in the state’s history to that time. It was a stunning victory for a little-known politician who had been mayor of Buffalo for only one year. It was a particularly embarrassing defeat for President Chester Arthur who had foisted Charles Folger, his secretary of the treasury, on a reluctant Republican Party. The Empire State was the critical swing state of late nineteenth century presidential elections, and Cleveland was instantly catapulted to the first rank of potential Democrat Party contenders for the nomination in 1884. In May 1883 President Arthur and Governor Cleveland met at the dedication of the Brooklyn Bridge. They would meet again in March 1885 when Cleveland succeeded Arthur as the twenty-second president of the United States.

 

The personal and political lives of the two men differed quite a bit. In the political realm, Arthur was a stalwart machine Republican with a reputation for corruption who had never been elected to any office prior to becoming vice president in 1880, while Cleveland was an independent-leaning Democrat known to his supporters as “Grover the Good” for his support of clean, honest government and civil service reform. During the Civil War Arthur served several important state posts and enjoyed the rank of general. Cleveland, on the other hand, hired a substitute to take his place in the Union Army. In the private sphere, Arthur was a respectable widower, an epicurean, and very conspicuous consumer with an expensive taste in clothes, among other things. Cleveland, to the contrary, was bachelor with a soiled reputation for fathering a child out of wedlock and who was as frugal as Arthur was spendthrift.

 

Yet, the two men shared two very important traits. First, both were sons of itinerant preachers during the Second Great Awakening and had fairly rootless and hardscrabble childhoods. Neither one followed in their father’s footsteps and both might possibly have harbored some resentment towards their fathers, even if they were fundamentally shaped by them. Second, they were ardent anglers. Both enjoyed nothing more than dropping their concerns, grabbing their fishing poles, and heading to lake or stream. As in other things, Arthur spared no expense when buying flies and other tackle.

 

With all this in mind, I found it somewhat interesting to read a passage in a letter Cleveland penned on August 20, 1883 to his political confidant Daniel Lamont. “Two things must be done,” the governor wrote, “to wit: the Republican Party must go, and Arthur must be beaten as a fisherman.” [1] Now that’s a presidential rivalry.

 



[1]Nevins, Allan, ed., Letters of Grover Cleveland, 1850-1908, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1970), 24.

Monday, April 10, 2017

William T. Hornaday on Hetch-Hetchy

Here is an item from the cutting room floor, so-to-speak, that never made its way into The Most Defiant Devil. It seems fitting to mention it after the pervious post on Hetch-Hetchy. Hornaday focused his attention like a laser beam on wildlife conservation. He did not engage in conservation issues outside of those that related directly to wildlife, but that did not mean that he was inattentive. A hard-hitting and fiery campaigner unafraid to sling mud, if not worse, his comments about John Muir are not surprising. The excerpt below comes from a letter Hornaday wrote to Henry Fairfield Osborn on November 8, 1913. Osborn, a paleontologist who served as president of the New York Zoological Society and president of the American Museum of Natural History was a friend of John Muir. I don't know if Hornaday and Muir ever met. They served on the same committee in a conservation congress held in Indianapolis in 1912, but I have no evidence that Muir actually attended. Hornaday wrote:

"It seems to me that the Hetch-Hetchy campaign is sadly missing the bullseye. There is too much firing into the air, instead of firing at guilty men! There is some ginger in the campaign; but only about 10 per-cent of what there should be. It is within the power of the managers to make the enemies of Yosemite National Park hurt .... in mighty short order; but the managers don't seem to know how to do the trick. It is significant that the managers of the campaign feel that they are so nearly beaten that they are directing their appeals to President Wilson."

It is interesting to think of how Hornaday might have handled the campaign to save Hetch-Hetchy differently from Muir.

The above excerpt is from the Hornaday papers at the Bronx Zoo, outgoing correspondence, vol. 6, page 422. The omitted words are due to the fact this is an old note in pencil and there are two words I could not make out in my notes.


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!