Friday, December 24, 2010

Arthur and Blaine, pt II

During his brief tenure as Secretary of State Blaine took an active interest in moderating the dispute between Chile and Peru and Bolivia known as the Ten Cents War or the War of the Pacific. Oddly, it was a war over guano – bird dung. That is right, it was a war over bird poop. Surprisingly, guano was in high demand as  European military machines required the nitrates for their arms build up. The three nations sharing the otherwise barren desert agreed to a reasonable arrangement whereby each country would tax all guano merchants at the same rate, regardless of nationality. In 1878 Bolivia broke this agreement by increasing the rates on Chilean firms, while keeping those of their native businesses the same. The matter escalated to war. Unfortunately for the Bolivians, the vastly Chilean military quickly brushed them aside. The Chileans invaded Peru, captured Lima, and installed a puppet government, while what was left of the Peruvian army took to the hills. As soon as Blaine became Secretary of State in 1881 he made it a point to mediate this dispute. Not only did Blaine want to increase American prestige in the region, he also sought to prevent European intervention. Blaine recognized Chile won the war but demanded a just settlement.            
The negotiations were a total mess. Hugh Kilpatrick, the United States ambassador in Chile, was too sick to perform his job. Stephen Hurlburt, the US ambassador to Peru, disregarded his instructions and took a very pro-Peruvian position. Before leaving office Blaine dispatched William Trescot as a special envoy to straighten out the situation and sent his son Walker Blaine to assist. Trescot and Walker Blaine were surprised to find an intransigent Chile and an unrealistic and demanding Peru.
This was the situation inherited by Blaine’s successor, Frederick Frelinghuysen. Frelinghuysen completely undercut Trescot, and hence Blaine, when he changed the United States position to complete neutrality, meaning the United States did not care about the terms of the settlement. The worst part of this was that Trescot learned of his instructions from the Chilean Foreign Minister, not the Secretary of State. Both he and Walker Blaine were shocked by this lapse of protocol and the stunning change in their mission.
The jury is out on the effect of this change. Trescot believed it prolonged the war by emboldening Chile. On the other hand, historian Justus Doenecke argued that Arthur’s change in position forced Peru to moderate its unrealistic demands.  Both sides signed a treaty in 1883 that proved highly favorable to Chile.
While it is doubtful Arthur’s sole motive in the policy change was to embarrass his rival James G. Blaine, it nevertheless had that effect. Not only did he completely reject Blaine’s policy, the Blaine family took the poor treatment Walker as a personal slight.  

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mathias Petry Update

Back in August I introduced you to Mathias J. Petry, my great-great-great grandfather on paternal grandmother's family. I learned two things about Mathias recently. First, he was a presidential elector in the 1872 contest. It appears he may have met Frederick Douglass who was also an elector for New York in 1872. Second, I found Mathias was born in Rheinplatz, Germany, an area in west German along the Rhine River. This is a large area, but better than nothing. In doing some further research I found a baptism record for a Mathias Petry on June 2, 1833 in the town of Blankenrath, Germany. His father's names was also Mathias and his mother was A. Marie Hansen. Blankenrath is in the right region, but the dates are a little odd. My Mathias was born in April. I ran through a few contemporary German records and the average was about a one week time span between birth and baptism. Maybe this is the same person and there is a logical explanation? Perhaps, I calculated the birth date wrong? The death certificate does not give a birth date, but it lists the age in years, months, and days. Unfortunately, New York City no longer has his marriage record, so I cannot use that to verify. I will keep working on Mathias Petry and will keep you posted.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some Recent Reads on Ancient History

Although my blog is devoted mainly to American history focused on the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and Environment (hence my picture of Theodore Roosevelt), I do teach Western Civilization and both halves of the U.S. survey course at a local community college. Here are two recent reads from the realm of Western Civilization:

Lars Brownsworth, Lost to the West. I wanted to bolster my knowledge of Byzantine history and turned to this book largely because I enjoyed Brownsworth’s podcast series “12 Byzantine Emperors.” Most of my knowledge of Byzantine history comes from Ostrowski’s books and some articles by other historians. As he does in his podcast, Brownsworth focuses on the emperors and empresses and provides little social history. Nor does he discuss political events outside the capital in any great detail unless it directly impacted the imperial palace. I took away four main things from this book. First, the Byzantines lived in a really tough neighborhood. Over their 1100 year history the Byzantines faced a constant stream of attack from Arabs, Bulgars, Crusaders, Goths, Hungarians, Mongols, Russians, Seljuk Turks and others before the Ottoman Turks finished them off in 1453. I found it quite remarkable they lasted as long as they did considering all this pressure. Second, there was a lot of ebb and flow. By this I mean things progressed, collapsed, and progressed again. For example, at various times Byzantines were interested in the classics and valued education and at other times they could care less. At times their economy did well and at other times it did not. In other words, while we might look at the larger trend and see Byzantine history as a steady decline since the time of Justinian, they certainly had their periods of revival. Third, how much the Byzantines considered themselves Roman. Brownsworth begins with Diocletian and reminds us that no matter what the western European historians thought, the Byzantines considered themselves Romans and not Greeks or anything else. For purposes of my Western Civ class, it means I need to make a better effort to include them in the some of my discussions. Fourth, I was surprised by the enormous impact disease had on the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire. Several times plagues devastated the Byzantine empire. Like those that ripped through the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century, the ones that struck the Byzantines hit at the worst possible moment. Being at the crossroads of Europe and Asia might have had some benefit regarding trade (at least until they contracted that out to Italian merchants) but it came at the cost of increased exposure to rapidly spreading viruses.

Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way. This is a much older book first published in 1930, but revised in the 1950s and republished in the 1990s. I struggled with her tone and writing style because she sounded to me like a bloviating windbag spouting all sorts of absolute statements, such as, “as is always the case.” Once I got used to the style, it was a little more bearable. Her basic argument is that the Greeks possessed a near perfect mixture of spirit (art for example) and the mind (intellect and science) until greed during the Age of Pericles ruined it for them. Western Civilization never recovered this balance, oscillating between periods of mind dominating the spirit and vice versa. She postulates at the end of the book that the Greeks lived during a unique time and place and their perfect balance between mind and spirit may no longer be possible. This makes them all the more valuable to study. I got lots of useful tidbits out of this book on certain personalities and how to weave together politics and philosophy. The Greeks were the original renaissance men with wide ranging interests in art, business, military affairs, and science. By Greeks Hamilton basically means Athenians. The Spartans are mentioned only in passing and in mostly unfavorable terms.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chester Arthur and James G. Blaine: The Conference of American States

When Chester Arthur became the twenty-first president of the United States upon the death of James A. Garfield he announced that he would retain his predecessor's cabinet. The move was part of an image makeover effort. Long regarded as a party hack with his hands in the cookie jar, Arthur had to demonstrate to the American people that he was up to the task of being president. He acted judiciously during his first few months of office and tried to display calm, conservative, competent judgement. Arthur's first public action as president was to appear at the centennial celebration of the Battle of Yorktown in October 1881. Like presidents before and after, he used a good military show and some patriotic flag waving to bolster his standing as commander-in-chief.

James G. Blaine was more than James A. Garfield's Secretary of State. He was the slain president's closest political friend, an advisor on domestic, as well as foreign matters, and major political figure in his own right. Blaine had his share of baggage, and allegations of corruption dogged him for years, but he had one of the sharpest political minds of his era and possessed an enormous store of charisma, an uncommon trait in the late nineteenth century. Blaine was an established leader of the Half Breed faction of the Republicans and long battled Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Arthur was a friend and ally to Conkling and belonged to the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party. As vice president Arthur supported Conkling against Garfield in a nasty patronage battle over the New York Customhouse.

Now there was an uncomfortable situation in Washington. Blaine had to work for a man he detested, but he didn't want to rock the boat and be blamed for Arthur losing any public confidence. Arthur was stuck with someone who could easily overshadow him and one he did not like to boot. Perhaps in the uncomfortable pirouette Blaine got the upper hand. In November 1881, just a week before he resigned as secretary of state, Blaine prevailed on President Arthur to invite the nations of Central and South America to a conference to be held in the United States.

Blaine would have sought this conference had Garfield lived. He was long concerned about the growth of British trade, and what we today call soft power in Latin America. It greatly bothered him that the the British had more trade in our continent than we did. A conference would solidify the relationships between each the Latin American nations and the United States. In addition, it would create a more peaceful environment -- an important objective considering there was currently one war in South America and a threat of a least one more in Central America. Peace, especially if brokered by the United States, would  greatly improve trade prospects. Peace and cooperation would also reduce the possibility of any European intervention.

Although Arthur agreed to send the invitations out in November, he changed his mind in January 1882, citing as his reason a concern that such a meeting would anger the European powers. Blaine went ballistic when he heard this, he wasn't known as "Jingo Jim" for nothing. Blaine wrote a 13 page letter in the tone of the schoolmaster he used to be lecturing Arthur on the folly of his decision and the foreign policy disaster it would create. Blaine called it a "voluntary humiliation." Blaine made sure this did not remain a private dispute. He gave the letter to his friend Whitelaw Reid who published in the newspaper he edited, the New York Tribune. Arthur could not expect any help from Secretary of State Frederick Frelinghuysen who told a guest at a Washington dinner party, "Blaine may quarrel with me if he likes but I shall not with him." One imagines Frelinghuysen declining invitations from "Meet the Press", "This Week", and "Face the Nation".

Blaine wasn't the only one critical of Arthur. Diplomats criticized the president for leaving them hanging and others chimed in how weak it looked to cave in the face of imagined European opposition. Didn't they have their meetings and conferences also? It seemed a psychological violation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Arthur started to back peddle again. In April he told Congress it was their problem. He argued the situation was too tense in the Americas, but if the American people expressed a desire, through their elected representatives, then there should be a conference. When Congress did not vote on the conference by August 1882 Arthur officially withdrew the invitations, even though nine countries had already accepted.

On the one hand, this is a presidential abdication of foreign policy power that would have made any late twentieth or early twenty-first century president cringe. On the other hand, Arthur knew Congress unlikely to support the conference and it gave him the cover to wiggle out of it. Why did he want out of the conference so bad? Most likely to embarrass and discredit James G. Blaine.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

James G. Blaine, Continental Liar from the state of Maine

Today I finished reading Neil Rolde's Continental Liar, a biography of James G. Blaine. This is not the first historical account of Blaine I have digested. Before this, I read Edward Stanwood's (1905) and David Muzzey's (1934) biographies as well as Edward Crapol's study of Blaine's terms as the nation's chief diplomat (2000). Mostly forgotten today, Blaine was one of the most popular political figures of the late 19th century. He was a school teacher and newspaper editor before becoming a Congressman, Speaker of the House, Senator, Secretary of State, failed presidential candidate (1884), and Secretary of State again.

Rolde is very good at two things. First, he does an excellent job in depicting Blaine's family life.  Today we seem jaded on the subject of the family lives of our politicians. From Kennedy's philandering to the drama of the Clinton marriage we question the sincerity of their relationships. There can be no doubt Blaine loved his family and his role as father, husband, and grandfather were just as important in his life as his role as statesman. Second, Rolde, a former Maine politician himself, focuses on Blaine's role in Pine State politics, even when he was a Senator and Secretary of State.

Despite these two positive attributes, there are some negatives to Rolde's biography. He never answers the question of where Blaine got his money from. He seemed to have plenty of it, far in excess of his government pay. Was he as corrupt as his contemporaries charged? Did he benefit from wise investments? These questions are not satisfactorily answered. Second, Rolde did not seem to sift through the 7,000 items that comprise the Blaine papers in the Library of Congress. He did access a journal written by one Blaine's daughters from the Blaine papers, but nothing else.  Rolde leaves some gaps in Blaine's legislative career. He covers the Reconstruction period throughly enough, but there is little else on the rest of Blaine's Congressional career. For example, where did Blaine stand on President Grant's financial legislation in the wake of the panic of 1873. Finally, I don't think he really explains Blaine's interest in reciprocity or how it connected to his larger views on expanding American power overseas.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Out of This Furnace

Back in the late 1990s, in the days of my ABDhood, I used to hunt for syllabi for courses in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Many of these syllabi required or recommended Thomas Bell's Out of this Furnace. Totally unfamiliar with this title, I decided it must be fairly new and with it being so esteemed I placed it on my reading list. For some reason Out of This Furnace proved very difficult to locate. Several libraries I visited listed it in the catalog but a copy could not be found on the shelf. Two months ago to my great surprise I found a copy at Barnes and Noble. First, I have to admit I had no idea it was a fictional account of Slovak family through three generations, which is why I stared at it for a couple of minutes thinking what is this doing here? Second, I was surprised to find out that it was written in 1941.

I can't say I really enjoyed Out of This Furnace. Even though I can believe that immigrant life in the steel towns of late nineteenth and early twentieth century was as bleak as Bell depicts it, I have to think there were still moments of happiness and joyful events. What I really took away from the book as an historian is the way the different generations related to life in America. The first generation seemed content to work and isolate themselves. Coming from a fractured Austro-Hungarian Empire, it only seemed natural for them to withdraw into themselves and forego learning English or making any attempt to assimilate into the larger culture of which they remained largely suspicious. The second generation wanted to fit in, but were not welcomed. They learned English, attended schools, but were derided as "Hunkies". Conscious of otherness, they felt stuck between two worlds - wanting to be Americans but not accepted as such. Finally, the third generation demanded a piece of the pie and felt comfortable using American methods to attain it. The triumph of the third generation in winning labor reform clearly votes for FDR.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Some Recent Reads

William Thomas, Unsafe for Democracy: Word War I and the U.S. Justice Department's Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent.

This book was an eye opener. I always knew that the World War I Alien and Sedition Acts were major setbacks to civil liberties, but I did not realize how bad it was. Through a detailed examination of the records from the National Archives and other sources, Thomas demonstrates that the effect of the Justice Department's crack down on dissent far exceeded the number of indictments. Instead, agents preferred to threaten and cajole those suspected of disloyalty, often visiting them suspects at their homes or place of work. It seems a good portion of the disloyal statements were uttered by drunks (telling an agent you were drunk seemed to get you out of trouble). It was not just running down President Wilson or praising the Kaiser that could get one into trouble. Those who did not purchase war bonds or donate to the Red Cross were equally suspected of disloyalty.

Alan Crawford, Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.

Twilight covers Jefferson's post-presidency. To me this book really bought him to life, demonstrating a human side that is often lost when discussing Jefferson the august author of the Declaration of Independence, first secretary of state, leader of the Democrat-Republicans, and third president of the United States. Here we see Jefferson the family man who wanted to protect his extended family, even though his benign efforts could back fire. Such as when his personality overshadowed those of his proud southern grandsons-in-law. They took refuge in the bottle and became abusive to their wives, Jefferson's grand daughters. One even mauled Jefferson's favorite grandson. In the final years Jefferson suffers many tragedies and his finances were a total mess. Finally, he continued to grapple with the issue of slavery, a problem he acknowledged but could never solve.

Jonathan Alter, Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.

I recently finished Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment, his account of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the famous 100 days that ran from March to June 1933. During this time FDR and Congress created the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Industrial Recovery Administration, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, regulated corporate reporting, and took the United States effectively off the gold standard, among other things. Alter’s central argument is that this flurry of legislation changed America in two fundamental ways. First, it re-wrote the social contract, with the federal government now assuming responsibility for insuring economic and social welfare. Second, FDR dramatically transformed the role of the presidency. In addition to chief executive, the post-FDR presidents had to act as director of the national legislature as well as cheerleader. This last role has had an enormous impact on the performance and popularity of FDR’s successors.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Meet Mathias J. Petry

Mathias J. Petry was my great-great-great grandfather. He was my father's mother's great- grandfather. Mathias was born in April 1833 in Germany and emigrated to the United States in 1854, although I have not been able to locate the actual ship manifest. Mathias settled in Brooklyn, where many of my German ancestors made their home. He married Alwine Huff, herself a German immigrant and became a policeman. At the time being a job on the police force was good patronage. Mathias had an early interest in politics and became a Commissioner of Deeds. He was also clearly a very sociable fellow, helping to form a German fraternal organization called the Saengerbund, and joining the militia.

In the fall of 1862 most of his militia unit (the 4th National Guard made up mostly of policeman) were mustered in as the 173rd New York Volunteer Infantry. The regiment served most of its first two years in Louisiana, taking part in the siege of Port Hudson and in General Banks's Red River campaign. When Early raided Washington, the 173rd NYVI was transported from Louisiana to the Shenandoah Valley. It served briefly in Georgia before being mustered out. Mathias rose from Lieutenant to brevet Major. After the war he continued to serve in ceremonial militia posts in Brooklyn.

Mathias entered politics following the war and represented Brooklyn's 16th Ward in the Commons Council, Board of Supervisors, and as an Alderman. In the last case he got into some trouble. In 1879 he was censured by the Republican Party for having voted for some Democratic nominees. I think that was about the end of his political career. He spent the rest of days engaged in real estate and insurance sales. He died at the age of 63 years, 2 months, and 25 days in 1896.

I wish I knew more about Mathias. For example, where in Germany was he from? what were the names of his parents? did he have brothers or sisters? As with most genealogical research, it is slow going, but I hope to get some answers soon.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Virginia Mafia

The third and fourth presidents, Messrs., Jefferson and Madison respectively rate high on the Siena poll. I would rate Jefferson down a few and Madison way down. I think I am square with them on Monroe, they last of the Virginia Mafia.

Jefferson: I would rate Jefferson high, but down a few notches. He gets points for the peaceful expansion through the Louisiana Purchase, domestic policy effectiveness (I usually judge this distinctly different from the effect of those same policies), and for being a game changer. There have been only a handful of presidents who have altered the political environment through policy and style and Jefferson was the first. Then Jefferson starts to lose points with me. There was the embargo. One the one hand I think (on a purely academic level) that it was a neat idea to keep us out of war. On the other it was a miserable failure and one of the federal government's biggest ever efforts to restrict freedom. In the realm of foreign policy Jefferson was in a tough position trying to assert neutral rights as France and England slugged it out. To me his biggest mistake was in leaving the country essentially unarmed in the midst of this crisis. The army shrunk, the navy mothballed, and reliance placed on the militia. The War of 1812 showed the clear folly of this policy. We were fortunate that the effects were not worse.

Madison: I don't get this one at all. I tend to view Madison as a very poor president, certainly not #6. He botched entry into war (I recommend Stagg, Mr. Madison's War on this). Madison followed this by becoming the worst war leader in our history. If there was one saving grace it was that he did not engage in any efforts to restrict civil liberties as Adams, Lincoln, and Wilson did during their administrations. It was a leaderless war, with no national strategy or objective. The war was enormously important not because we won, but because the Native Americans lost and tens of thousands of American settlers flooded into the Ohio River Valley. States formed in quick succession. Thus his presidency produced important, long-term consequences, but his involvement in that outcome was purely a coincident nature.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Ranking of the Presidents

Greetings all and welcome to the inaugural post of my history blog.

Siena College recently released its poll of 238 scholar's rankings of the presidents of the United States. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. started this game back in the 1940s and various organizations have conducted similar surveys ever since. Scholars and academics are the traditional judges, but several years ago C-Span compared the views of the ivory tower with plain old Americans who used the same system. Some of the polls have been very elementary, simply asking participants to rate the presidents in order. Others have asked for scores for individual categories, such as domestic policies, foreign policies, etc., that were then compiled in some weighted formula to arrive at a final overall ranking. Siena followed this latter approach and rated presidents on background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck, willingness to take risks, ability to avoid critical mistakes, court appointments, domestic accomplishments, executive appointments, foreign policy, handling of the economy, party leadership, relationship with Congress, ability to compromise, communication ability, executive ability, leadership, and overall ability. I find this to be an interesting collection of categories. How does one measure luck? That is always the heart of the problem of these types of polls anyway, it always comes down to a subjective opinion. Another flaw is that one's political views tend to bias the results as well. A conservative will not rate Franklin Roosevelt well for his handling of the economy as where a dyed in the wool progressive could not possibly give Ronald Reagan good marks in that category either. But they are fun intellectual games to play. In my own rankings of the presidents I take civil rights/liberties into account. That seems to me to be an important category for rating a president. This obviously hurts some of our traditionally more higher rated presidents, such as Lincoln, FDR, and Woodrow Wilson. Of course, with those presidents one could argue that Lincoln's freeing of the slaves might compensate for the suspension of Habeus Corpus and victory over the Hitler would mitigate some of FDR's lost points in the civil rights category because he interned the Japanese Americans in the Second World War. The big question is if these acts were necessary for the achievement of the larger aim. This is not to say that I would suggest selling out freedom for security, but it is a question for the historical balance sheet, such as it is in this goofy game of presidential ratings.

Here is the list of presidents according to the Siena poll.
1. Franklin Roosevelt
2. Theodore Roosevelt
3. Abraham Lincoln
4. George Washington
5. Thomas Jefferson
6. James Madison
7. James Monroe
8. Woodrow Wilson
9. Harry Truman
10. Dwight Eisenhower
11. John Kennedy
12. James Polk
13. Bill Clinton
14. Andrew Jackson
15. Barrack Obama
16. Lyndon Johnson
17. John Adams
18. Ronald Reagan
19. John Quincy Adams
20. Grover Cleveland
21. William McKinley
22. George H.W. Bush (aka Bush 41)
23. Martin Van Buren
24. William Taft
25. Chester Arthur
26. Ulysses Grant
27. James Garfield
28. Gerald Ford
29. Calvin Coolidge
30. Richard Nixon
31. Rutherford Hayes
32. Jimmy Carter
33. Zachary Taylor
34. Benjamin Harrison
35. William Harrison
36. Herbert Hoover
37. John Tyler
38. Millard Fillmore
39. George W. Bush
40. Franklin Pierce
41. Warren Harding
42. James Buchanan
43. Andrew Johnson

I was surprised that Theodore Roosevelt ranked so high. He is one of my favorites, but I cannot make a case that he did better than George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. I was also surprised by the placement of Benjamin Harrison. I think he was a better president than where he landed on this list. A couple other seemed a more than a few paces from where I would place them, and I will cover those in future blog postings. President Obama and the hapless William Henry Harrison should probably not be included on the list. One has not completed his term and the other served 30 days in office, almost all of it prostrate in his bedroom dying. It is even debatable if Garfield who served six months, but half of that time also prostrate and dying, should be on the list. Of course the inclusion of the current occupant generates the necessary media coverage.

Over the next few weeks I will make a few comments on the presidents and their ratings using the Siena rankings as my guide.