Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Dreaming of Franklin D. Roosevelt

I feel fortunate that I have very vivid dreams. Over the course of my life, I have had several dreams with presidents in them. Once, I was helping Ronald Reagan from a car into one of our family’s favorite restaurants in Manhattan, Ye Waverly Inn in the Village (that’s Greenwich Village for non-New Yorkers). BTW, they have the best chicken pot pies! In another, my wife and I were meeting with Woodrow Wilson. I was some sort of cabinet secretary for Health and we were trying to convince the president to support funding for a new hospital project. I rode a roller coaster with George W. Bush (well, that one might be easier to interpret than the others). He was wearing a suit in the roller coaster, which obviously means this was some sort of non-recreational, business ride. Over the years, LBJ, Lincoln, Nixon, and Obama have made their appearances.


On Sunday night I had a dream with FDR. I was over tired when I finally went to bed and greatly aggravated because my car driver’s side window regulator (the doohickey that makes the windows go up and down) broke late that night. I had been watching the Ken Burns Roosevelt videos on Netflix that evening. In my dream I was sitting at table in a small apartment. The table cloth was checkered. There were no colors in this dream, it was more sepia toned. FDR was sitting next to me with that big smile and he made be a hero sandwich. Sliced it. Wrapped it. Gave it to me, saying “here is your sandwich.” I thanked him profusely. Put my arm around him, and promised that I would vote for something. Not sure if I pledged to vote for him in an election or if I was supposed to be a Congressman or not.   

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Thomas Jefferson, the Press, and the Second Inaugural Address

American political figures have always felt antagonism toward the press. The emergence of multiple forms of digital and social media, the continuous, around-the-clock reporting, and the ease in which information can be accessed might have created a variation of scale in recent decades, but earlier politicians were just as frustrated with the "media" of their day, and just as prone to lash out, as well as lapse into self-pity from having their words misconstrued.

In his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson delivered the following stern rebuke to the press:

"During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science, are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness, and to sap its safety; they might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation; but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation."

He went on to add that his re-election was a essentially a vote of no confidence of the press and its lies, and that no "salutary coercions of the law" in the form of defamation prosecution should be needed. It should be noted that this was less than a decade of the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which gave the federal government power to prosecute attacks on the administration and president. President John Adams, who signed the infamous acts, felt, in part, that the press had abrogated its responsibility to inform the people through their vituperative attacks on him and the policies of his party. Jefferson rode resentment of the Alien and Sedition Acts all the way to the White House. Yet, after his first term he was just as frustrated with what he saw as the unjust attacks on his own person and administration. Granted, it is highly unlikely that they would have included the same people, even if they spoke in general terms about the press. Adams meant the  Democrat-Republican partisan press, whom he considered Jacobins who would spread anarchy, chaos, and revolution. Jefferson referred to the Federalist partisan press, whom he considered monarchists who wanted to stifle the freedoms won in the American Revolution, bind the people to feudalism, and end the experiment in representative self-government. No wonder, both men thought their opponents would destroy the Republic! Sound familiar?!?

On a side note, I find Jefferson's complaints rich in irony. There is a poetic justice in an opposition press holding his feet to the fire. In the previous decade, he was instrumental in forming an opposition press to President Washington, and may have been one of the original "leakers" by providing information from within the government to his allies in the press.

Note: The above quotes are taken from Thomas Jefferson, Writings (NY: Library of America, 1984), 521-22.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Blizzard of 1888 
As a reminder that there have been other blizzards in the northeast, I am sharing this article I wrote for The Encyclopedia of New York State, edited by Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), p.190.
Perhaps the most famous snowstorm in American history, the Blizzard of 1888 is sometimes referred to as the “Great White Hurricane.” The storm deposited as much as 50 inches of snow from northern Virginia to Maine. In all 400 deaths were attributed to the Blizzard of 1888 and almost 200 ships were lost. There are no adequate figures to reflect the monetary losses, but the entire northeast was immobilized for a week. Buildings, rail lines, and telephone and telegraph lines sustained heavy damage.  
The Blizzard of 1888 began as an inauspicious low pressure system off the coast of North Carolina. When the system drifted eastward on Sunday March 11, the National Weather Service (NWS) estimated it would continue its path out to sea. As a result, the NWS predicted moderate rain and winds for the Atlantic coastal region from Virginia north to Maine. The NWS lacked oceanic monitoring facilities and had no way of knowing that instead of following its predicted course, the storm had moved due north. Furthermore the storm gained power on the open Atlantic and the barometric pressure dropped dramatically. The storm had turned into a cyclone.
Sunday, March 11, 1888 was a mild day on land with spring-like temperatures in the mid-fifties. Ships at sea were the first to feel the effects of the storm. Captains piloted their ships as best they could to the most accessible safe haven. At Lewes, Delaware, a port hub of the Pennsylvania Railroad, ships started arriving into the harbor at nightfall just as the storm did, creating chaotic and dangerous conditions. In all thirty-five ships were destroyed in the harbor. In the late afternoon rain started falling in Washington, D.C., and by evening, the downpour was torrential. During the night the rain turned to snow. Rain also began to fall in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and across New England. No one sensed that a major blizzard was imminent.
When the northeast awoke on Monday morning, March 12, they were startled to see a blizzard. Strong, bitterly cold winds blew frozen shards of snow horizontally, reducing visibility, and making it nearly impossible for man or beast to walk in the conditions. The snow downed telegraph and telephone wires, cutting the east coast, including Washington, D.C. off from the rest of the nation as well as from each other. Trains could not pass through accumulations of almost 50 inches of snow or the drifts which could be as high as 10 or 12 feet. Up and down the eastern seaboard commuters were stranded, including the New York City elevated trains which were stuck on the tracks with passengers helplessly trapped inside. New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, DC, and New Haven, Connecticut were all incapacitated by the blizzard, which reached as far inland as Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Business virtually halted and essential goods and services, such as daily coal or milk deliveries, could not be made. Rural homes were equally affected, with the occupants locked in by the snow unable to get out or tend to their animals. Cases of extreme kindness, such as residents helping stranded commuters, were mixed with incidents of extreme greed, as in the case of carriages giving rides in New York City for 50 dollars.    
For most areas affected by the blizzard, snow fell continuously for about 24 hours, and once it stopped, repair crews were dispatched to fix the downed telegraph lines and get the railroads running again. It would be another 48 hours before the trains were moving, even on a limited basis. The storm continued across the Atlantic. Although the system, which the Europeans referred to as “the American Blizzard,” hit England and Germany its energy had dissipated and it caused only losses of livestock.

The Blizzard of 1888 was one of the most important natural disasters in American history and there were several significant outcomes. First, telegraph lines were moved underground to prevent another national breakdown in communication. Second, New York City realized that the elevated train lines were too vulnerable to the weather to meet the demands of the national commercial and financial center and began the process of constructing a subway system. Finally, the NWS realized that it needed better oceanic and atmospheric monitoring, and placed stations in Nassau, Bahamas, Bermuda, Newfoundland, as well as on Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Best reads of 2015

I read so many good books this past year. Here are some of my favorite reads from 2015. 

Best book: 

James Morton Turner, The Promise of American Wilderness (2012). This is my kind of book! Turner does not give an intellectual discussion of wilderness. Instead, he examines how political process of the 1964 Wilderness Act shaped the definition and concept of wilderness. From this angle, wilderness has had many diverse and varied meanings over the last fifty years. Coming from an urban/suburban environment, I have always had great difficulty identifying with very precise meanings of wilderness. As a kid growing up in Queens, Forest Park felt as much like wilderness to me as Hetch-Hetchy Valley did to John Muir. The fact that the Act left some wiggle room in a definition of wilderness, essentially putting it in the eye of the beholder, gave it great strength and flexibility. This, however, created some conflict, which is at the heart of The Promise of American Wilderness. Turner chronicles not only the debate between those who wanted to protect wilderness and those who did not, but also the complex disagreements among different environmental groups and as well as between national and local organizations. There needs to be more work like this. The Promise of American Wilderness was my best read of 2015.  

Honorable mentions:

Leon Fink, The Long Gilded Age (2015). So much for Rebecca Edwards etal. and the Long Progressive Era. Fink reminds us that the economic system of the Gilded Age was hotly contested ground between labor and management. Their struggles shaped the socio-economic system as it emerged. He makes a case for contingency in that outcomes could have varied. In my humble opinion, Fink's workers had much more of a fighting chance than say those that Steven Fraser depicts in The Age of Acquiescence (2015). Fink also shines an international perspective on the era, and makes the case that labor would have benefited from doing so as well. For example, he argues that during the Homestead strike, American workers should have sought allies with British unions. Denying Andrew Carnegie his respectable safe haven in Skibbo Castle and applying public pressure on him in Great Britain could have yielded positive results. This is just one example of Fink's use of contingency that will surely generate thought.  

Elizabeth Sanders, The Roots of Reform (1999). I see this as something of a complement to David Sarasohn's The Party of Reform (1989). Both seek to turn the Progressive Era on its head. In the latter case, the author roots the reform spirit of the era in the Democratic Party, not the Republicans. Sanders further roots the reform movement in the agrarian/populist tradition, not the urban middle class. It was the farmers, she argues, who drove the Progressive movement. They had a broad vision for a democratic society, which was at odds with the much more narrow, restrictive, and conservative scope of the Gompers labor movement. 

Richard White, Railroaded (2011). Long ago I read an essay by Ayn Rand in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966) that argued that among the transcontinental railroads, only the Great Northern was a success because it did not accept any subsidies from the Federal government. The other railroads were corrupt, poorly managed boondoggles that survived only because the government propped them up. Rand was making a libertarian case against state interference in business. White likewise argues that the railroads were nothing more than a fraudulent scheme, although he comes at it from the left with a strong post-2008 perspective. Playing with house money and supported by public bailouts, White argues that the transcontinental railroad system was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme to route money from the public treasury into the pockets of select investors. And they were select investors who conned others (including their former pals) when it suited them. The amoral, apolitical railroads backed whatever best served the financial interests of their investors. As where previous generations of historians saw the completion of the transcontinental railroad as a triumph of American progress, White sees a complicated, bloated, unnecessary, and unsustainable system that sapped the treasury for decades. It was, in short, a national tragedy in his telling.     

Mark W. Summers, Ordeal of the Reunion (2015). Summers is one of my favorite historians. He is a master dealing with sources and he has a great sense of humor. Summers is one of the few historians who really does make me chuckle out loud.  Summers makes a case that Reconstruction was more of a success than we tend to view it. He argues that the primary purpose of Reconstruction was to bring the union back together after the war without slavery or a slave power. In this, he stresses, it succeeded. There really was little political will even at the height of Radical Reconstruction to completely re-make southern society. Ordeal of Reunion examines the importance of the west (as a source of conflict and investment that drained the north of political and economic will), the economy (especially the Panic of 1873 which devastated the south, especially freedmen), and corruption (which was a real problem in some Reconstruction governments). This will give me a new perspective for when we get to Reconstruction in class much later this spring. 

Lastly, non-History:

Thomas Merton, The Seeds of Contemplation (1962). I picked this up in September after seeing Pope Francis's speech before Congress. As a Catholic I had some passing knowledge of Merton, but I had not read anything he had written. Seeds is a powerful book. It is not something one reads start to finish. Instead, one reads it slowly a paragraph at a time. I have spent weeks contemplating a single paragraph in this remarkable book. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ota Benga, part 2, Pamela Newkirk's Spectacle

While September 1906 represented just one month in William T. Hornaday’s 82 years on this earth, it was the central event in Ota Benga’s tragic life story, which ended in suicide in a Virginia barn in 1916. Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle re-examines Ota Benga’s biography with great sensitivity to the isolation and humiliation that he endured in a foreign land so far from home. At the time, Ota Benga’s seemingly erratic behaviors were written up in sensationalized accounts as examples of his “savagery.” Newkirk points out that the behaviors Ota Benga exhibited were not unlike those demonstrated by individuals who had undergone extreme deprivation and torture. She restores his humanity and her book clearly replaces Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume Ota: The Pygmy in the Zoo (New York: Dell, 1992).

Indeed, Benga must have been a very challenging subject for a biographer. Unlike Hornaday who left tens of thousands of pages of published and unpublished documents (which presented challenges of a very different sort), Ota Benga left nothing. His life has to be pieced together from unreliable contemporary sources, such as newspapers and the writings of both Hornaday and Samuel Verner, Benga’s guardian, for lack of a better term. Besides sharing the common racial prejudices of time, newspapers published highly sensationalized accounts that reflected their dubious sources (i.e. Hornaday) for background information. Hornaday and Verner had too much self-interest invested to be objective; they wanted to create promotional stories and profit, not tell an accurate or unbiased account of Ota Benga’s life. As Newkirk points out, Verner was far from the most reputable character, and he deserves much blame for the abuse his charge suffered.   

What this book taught me is that I should have been much more suspicious of Hornaday’s version of the incident and his accounts of Ota Benga’s life and story in The Most Defiant Devil. Ultimately, however, I stand by my position on the events of September 1906, which is to say that Hornaday alone does not deserve all the blame for this terrible moment in the history of a great city and a great institution. Like many before me, I think I might have treated Ota Benga as too peripheral to the story. I am very grateful that Pamela Newkirk has filled a void by telling the story from perspective of Ota Benga.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ota Benga, part 1

I am happy to report that the “The Most Defiant Devil:” William Temple Hornaday and his Controversial Crusade to Save American Wildlife  has received some positive reviews in such scholarly publications as The Journal of American History, Annals of Iowa, Environmental History, Western Historical Quarterly, AAG, and CHOICE. In addition, a very favorable review by the Associated Press in late August 2013 was carried in papers nationwide, including my hometown Denver Post. Most reviewers commented that I presented a balanced view of William Temple Hornaday and did not shy from flaws, including his insidious racism. However, there was one rather negative review in the New York History that claims I should have devoted more space to the decision in 1906 to place African Ota Benga on display with the monkeys in the New York Zoological Park.
My decision to contain the story of this deplorable incident to two pages was motivated largely by considerations of page count as well as my intent to keep the focus on Hornaday the conservationist, hence the subtitle my biography. I will come back to one more reason in a moment.
In my brief coverage of the Ota Benga “incident” I wanted to call attention to two facts. First, Hornaday’s employers, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Madison Grant deserve as much, if not more, blame for the decision of placing Ota Benga on display in the Monkey House. Both men were themselves notorious racists who were just as eager as their director to boost gate receipts. Second, the idea of living “scientific specimens” was not unique to the New York Zoological Park in September 1906. Ota Benga had been on “display” previously at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. He was not the only African on “display” in St. Louis, nor were Africans the only people so exhibited at the exposition. At a time when the foremost men of science, like Henry Fairfield Osborn, used Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to promote racial hierarchy, including the concept that different peoples on the earth were in various stages of evolution, it not surprising that human beings were used as living object lessons at expositions and museums in the early decades of the 20th century. It was the provocative placement of Ota Benga in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo that makes September 1906 stand out as a particularly deplorable event. Surely, Hornaday was a racist, but his motivation was largely to boost attendance. A deeper discussion of scientific racism and humans on display was well outside the scope of The Most Defiant Devil, especially since Hornaday never adhered to the theory of scientific racism.
Finally, readers would be disappointed if they think that New Yorkers in 1906 condemned the zoo. In fact, this sensationalist stunt succeeded in drawing tens of thousands of paying New Yorkers to the zoo. Men of science defended the decision and powerful political leaders led by Mayor George B. McClellan backed the New York Zoological Society. In other words, the uncomfortable fact is that it was not as widely protested or condemned at the time as we in the 21st Century would like to believe. While posterity might remember Hornaday as the zoo director who displayed an human being in the Monkey House of his zoo, his reputation as the leading zoologist of his generation, foremost spokesperson on wildlife conservation, and undisputed expert in all fields relating to animals was undamaged among his contemporaries because of the events of September 1906. It was not a defining moment for Hornaday, it was a ripple in an otherwise long life.