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.