Saturday, December 31, 2011

Chester Arthur and Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening

I finally got a chance to start Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening. The author spent some time detailing the life of the young Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the red-shirted Zouave killed in May 1861, as a focal point for his larger discussion on the ideals of the "generation of 1861." The young men who came of age just as the war began were an ambitious lot, full of ideals (thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson), impressed by revolution and the possibility of war (thanks Kossuth and Garibaldi, etc.), willing to fight for their political beliefs, full of romantic notions (thanks to Sir Walter Scott), desirous to break with the older generation, and ardent to strike out in the world on their own and leave a personal mark. As I read through this chapter I couldn't help but think of our twenty-first president, Chester A. Arthur of New York.

Born in Vermont in 1829, Arthur was 31 years old when the war began, perhaps a little older than the generation Goodheart wrote about, but not by much. Arthur's biography confirms Goodheart's description of this cohort. Like his peers Arthur sought a clear break with his past. The son a Baptist preacher whose hot condemnations of slavery kept him on the move, Chet sought a life with more stability, greater wealth, and a lot less religion. It was a strong rejection of upbringing. He attended Union College in the 1840s and became a school teacher. This, however, only served to pay his bills while he prepared for a legal career. In 1854 he was admitted to the bar and moved to New York City, a place far removed from his old stomping grounds of small, poor towns of upstate New York and New England.

Arthur certainly left his father's religion in the dust. His mother complained about her sons's (both Chet and his brother William) lack of devotion, and the future president's own son Chester A. Arthur II believed his father possessed no religious convictions at all. On the other hand, some of the moralistic preaching sunk in. Chet considered slavery a moral wrong and did what he could to fight the evil institution. As a young attorney he worked on the Lemon Case, to free slaves who had escaped their Virginian master when he stopped in New York City on the way to Texas. Arthur also visited "Bleeding" Kansas in 1857 to get a better understanding of the violence and to show some support for the free-state forces. He did not stay in Kansas long, but his journey certainly represented a spirit of the times. Whether it was those of the Emigrant Aid Society who flocked to Kansas, filibusters who invaded Cuba, young men who set out to sea (like Herman Melville and Henry George), gold miners who travelled cross country, or countless other examples, Chet's ill-defined trip to Kansas was symbolic of the adventurous ambition of his generation.

Arthur had many other qualities that speak to Goodheart's description. The poor country bumpkin reinventing himself as a debonair, well-paid urban lawyer stands out. His willingness to fight for politics can be seen not only in his serving as quartermaster general of New York State during the Civil War, but in how he setup a maypole in 1844 to support the Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay. When some young Democrats came to knock it down, Arthur led a counterattack of young Whigs that resulted in a fistfight. Arthur joined the militia, like many of his generation. Unlike Ellsworth who took his pre-war militia duty seriously, Arthur seemed predominately interested in what we today call "networking." He built his list of legal clients and met other rising politicos. Finally, Arthur's break with the past and political convictions can be seen in how quickly he joined the brand new Republican Party. Like many of his cohort the war purged Arthur of his romantic idealism, much as World War I would do for a later generation.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Europe's Sewer

On page 146 of The Rhine: An Eco-Biography , 1815-2000, Mark Cioc writes, "One hundred fifty years of hydraulic tinkering had turned the Rhine into a soulless shadow of its former self. Once clean, it was now filthy; once broad, it was now narrow; once bursting with life, it was now half-dead." Cioc chronicles how the once mythical and enchanting Rhine was altered in the wake of Napoleon and industrial revolution to become nothing more than a canal. The Rhine Commission, created in 1815, took decisions out of the hands of politicians and placed them in those of engineers who cared little for their environmental impact. They narrowed and straightened the Rhine, removing its islands and shortening it. The tamed Rhine, confined to a single riverbed supplied water, waste removal, power, industrial processes, transportation, and recreation. This last was given least priority. The engineers minimized their handy work on some of more touristy lengths, but gave no consideration to birds, fish, and mammals. In altering the flood plain birds lost much of their habitat. By chopping up the Rhine into dammed segments, the engineers made it impossible for migrating fish to reach their habitats. If the engineers were uninterested in preserving nature, the statesmen were less so. Driven by the Prussians, the main political concern was to foster growth to Germany's economic and military power. The chemical, coal, and dye industries pumped millions of tons of waste in the Rhine. Instead of regulating these emissions, industrial and political leaders adhered to the discredited notion that significant water would dilute the toxic waste. The effect, however, was to kill off more wildlife habitat and to turn some of the feeder rivers into the foulest stretches of water in the world. Conservation came late in Germany, long after the United States. As Cioc chronicles, the first effective pollution controls were only implemented in the 1970s and 1980s. The good news is this new regime is working to vastly reduce pollution. Restoring wildlife is proving much more difficult. Although some of the damage can be mitigated, the Rhine will never be what it once was.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A private not a corporal

Although it falls on the tail end of the Progressive Era, World War I is one of my favorite historical topics. As I tell my students we are still living out the consequences of this momentous event. Today we see the effects most clearly in the Middle East where the borders were drawn when the victorious allies carved up the Ottoman Empire. The war left its lasting legacies on all the other participant nations as well. France was weakened, England confused, America disgusted, Russia communized, Germany punished, Italy betrayed, Austria-Hungary divided, Romania enlarged, Bulgaria reduced, and new states created. Tens of millions were killed, maimed, psychologically traumatized, and dehumanized. Civilians suffered atrocities and revolution followed in the wake of the war. It is hard to see how anyone of that generation was unaffected in someway.

Thomas Weber's Hitler's First War: Adolph Hitler, the Men of the LIst Regiment, and the First World War seeks to measure the impact of the First World War on the man most responsible for starting the even more terrible Second World War. I first got interested in this book when I read a summary of Weber's findings on a blog (HNN's Clio, I think). I admit I like books that spin conventional wisdom on its head. Later I heard Marshall Poe interview Weber on his excellent "New Books in History" podcast. It sounded like good historical grunt work and a window in to the life of front line soldiers. Weber chronicles the entire regiment in order to provide context for Hitler's experience. His primary theses is that the war did not make Hitler a Nazi. There was no outstanding sense of anti-semitism or proto-fascist/authoritarian sentiment in the unit. In fact, using the area the List veterans lived in (rural Bavaria), their religion (mostly Catholic), and individual accounts they were indeed less likely to become members of the Nazi party than other Germans. There were a few notable exceptions, of course, as some of Hitler's closest comrades took advantage of his rising power.

Weber finds that Hitler's ideology at the end of the war was a fuzzy fascination with the mixture of collectivism and nationalism, but few specific ideas. He first participated in the Bavarian Soviet which quickly collapsed. After the collapse of the revolutionary left, Hitler migrated to the revolutionary right. The mixture of collectivism and nationalism provided the bridge. Mein Kampf, therefore, was an attempt to cover up this left ward experience and root his ideology closely in a national experience that fit the tenets of his new party.

Weber makes many other arguments as well. Here is a sample.

*Hitler was not a frontline runner dodging machine gun bullets, but a "rear area pig" who had a comfy billet in the regimental HQ behind the lines.
*The regiment had few volunteers, it consisted mostly of reservists and high command considered it low quality unit to be used only when no other was on hand.
*His Iron Crosses owed much to this proximity to regimental officers.
*Hitler was only mildly injured from the gas attack of 1918 and that his injuries were psychosomatic, another fact of his past that Hitler wanted to conceal.
*An oddball loner from Austria with few social skills and no leadership abilities, he was promoted only one grade during the entire war. Never a corporal, he spent the whole war a private.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chester Arthur isn't worth a $1?

The Treasury Department announced that it will cease making $1 coins after minting one portraying our 20th president, James A. Garfield. Of course, his successor via assassination, Chester A. Arthur will not enjoy the honor of a presidential coin. Perhaps conspiracy theorists will

speculate that this is some sort of payback for Arthur's complicity in the questions raised over our current president's citizenship. But the simple fact is Americans don't use the $1 coin and it has no place in our pockets, change cups, and cash registers. I admit I am guilty of this myself. The metallic images of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Hayes have a permanent residence in my desk draw with a commemorative token from Buffalo Bill's grave in Golden, Colorado and some sort of Soviet coin with Lenin's image and the dates 1870-1970 that my uncle smuggled back from a 1980s trip to the USSR (and yes, that was during the height of the "spy dust" years, if one recalls that Cold War news nugget). They haven't even made their way to my modest coin collection to cozy up to Susan B. Anthony, yet another $1 coin fiasco. My Irish grandmother made sure I received a freshly minted one as my interest history was already evident in 1979. I added it to my currency collection which then consisted of a couple of buffalo back

nickels and a $2 bill that I received on my birthday and never spent. I still have the $2 bill and the Susan B. Anthony dollar, and right there you can see I have taken $6 whole dollars permanently out of circulation. As a tax payer I am glad that we will no longer waste money creating a product that the public-at-large does not want or use. The historian in me, however, wishes they would have realized this a bit later, after coins bearing the images of the Gilded Age presidents could be minted and, to use a not quite appropriate term, circulated. Perhaps it would have stimulated some interest among some Americans in the Gilded Age and its bearded and mustached chief executives. Theodore Roosevelt would have been a good breaking point. After all, I would think Mount Rushmore would more than compensate for his not being on a coin.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Decision Points

Theodore Roosevelt created the modern presidential autobiography. He stressed his accomplishments, minimized his setbacks, and offered insight to his decisions. In the years after 1913 it might have seemed Roosevelt's reflection on his life and presidency was a product of his own prolific authorial nature and not a new trend for former chief executives. William Howard Taft did not want to relive his unhappy four years in office, nor did he have a history of writing. Stricken with a stroke Woodrow Wilson could not write an autobiography. What a shame! His sense of history, writing ability, and professorial bent, could have produced a standout among presidential memoirs, even if it would have been burdened by his self-righteousness. Warren Harding died in office, but one wonders if he would have written one had he lived. Calvin Coolidge revived the memoir,

although it was not very informative. I remember reading Allen Nevins once wondered aloud why on earth Coolidge even bothered to write it. Herbert Hoover left a much more detailed, informative, and lengthy contribution. In this highly defensive work, Hoover sought to vindicate his reputation and offer his version of history. He divided the depression down to a number of smaller segments that he dealt with. Throughout he stuck to the narrative that he thoroughly understood what was going on and acted appropriately. Obviously, it all went to hell with the New Deal Democrats. Thereafter, all presidents who survived their terms wrote autobiographies or memoirs, mostly with the help of ghost writers. Each one has its own character and offers an insight to the presidents who wrote them. For example, Harry Truman's is homey, Dwight Eisenhower's is professional if bland, Nixon's is defensive and consumed by Watergate, and Clinton's is verbose.

Like his predecessors George W. Bush seeks to minimize his defeats and accent his Triumphs in his Decision Points. Skipping detailed discussion of individual policy, I will only offer a couple of general comments on the structure of the book.

1. I sensed that there were two myths Bush consciously sought to confront without mentinoing. First, Dick Cheney's name appears sporadically in the policy discussions. In other words, the Vice President does not appear to exert the same level of influence in Bush's account of his years in office as the media depicted. Second, it was largely reported during his administration that the president avoided internal discussion and debate. In his memoir, Bush recounts many debates within the administration and with allies on important policy matters. Of course, the gate swings both ways. If the president consulted many advisors then they must also take some of the blame for failed policies.

2. The organization of the book works well. It is thematic, not chronological. Nevertheless, I was disappointed that there was no discussion on environmental policies. No one is going to rank Bush as a great environmental president, but that still doesn't mean that Clear Skies, the protected zone in the Pacific, emissions standards, Global Warming, etc., were not worth more mention.

3. I liked the sense of humor. There are many serious topics and having a little humor (largely absent in most other presidential autobiographies) helps to cut some of Bush's defensiveness.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Nature of New York

In my "The Ides" posting I noted how good intentions can sometimes boomerang with devastating effects. One example is an 1879 New York State law that required all apartment rooms to have a window. The idea behind the law was to bring light and fresh air to the overcrowded city tenements. This good sounding law had the unintended consequence of inspiring landlords to construct the infamous "dumbbell" apartment design (see picture to right). This odious

construction only made the problem worse as the windows in the "air shafts" between the buildings filled with rotting garbage and refuse. Instead or bringing fresh air and light, this law ironically created dank apartments infused with noxious fumes. I learned about this law in David Stradling's The Nature of New York: An Environmental History of the Empire State (Cornell, 2010).

As Stradling demonstrates, New York state played a pivotal role in the history of the American environment. Just to name some of the most important events and ideas emanating from the Empire State that inspired the nation: the Erie Canal, Niagara Falls tourism, Central Park, Adirondack State Park, Levittown, and Love Canal. Important individuals such as James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School, the Roosevelts, Robert Marshall, and Robert Moses, to name a few, came from New York but impacted attitudes and policies throughout the United States. Being so focused on William Hornaday, I would argue that Stradling could have emphasized the role of the New York Zoological Park (a.k.a Bronx Zoo) in revolutionizing the concept of the zoo much more than he did, but I admit this falls in the category of basing criticism on how I might have written the book which is not always fair.

There are many more common environmental issues in New York State that could be used to make comparisons to other localities, states, and systems. Examples include, How to supply cities with water? Where to build infrastructure? Who should be held responsible for misdeeds and damage that harms other people? How to adapt to changes in the environment? What is the difference between genuine natural space and managed space? Throw in NIMBY, polluters, and larger trends like the decline of agriculture or the rise of the urban population and this book speaks across the Empire State's borders.

I really enjoyed The Nature of New York, especially because Stradling gives a lot of attention to the urban environment. He successfully argues that use of urban space is as legitimate topic for environmental history as forests, mountains, prairies, and tidal lands. New York City's pioneering 1916 zoning law stood out for me. I was surprised it took so long for such a code, and thought it more than coincidental that it was implemented only 4 years before the census revealed that the population of the country was equally divided between urban and rural dwellers. It is almost as if cities only then earned some respect as more than a dumping ground. Second, I just about forgot how much I enjoyed place histories. Whether it is a discussion on the history of the environment or politics, I do so enjoy this type of study.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hot Time in the Old City

I recently reviewed Edward Kohn's Hot Time in the Old Town on H-Net's SHGAPE network. Here is the link if you are interested:

Hot Time in the Old Town covers New York City's killer heat wave of 1896. Over 1200 people by the author's account. It reaches a little bit in claiming that the heat wave killed William Jennings Bryan's campaign and inspired Theodore Roosevelt's progressivism. Otherwise, this is an enjoyable and interesting read. The best part was in how it connected the lives of individuals, especially

tenement dwelling immigrants with the urban environment. Although I reviewed this for the Gilded Age and Progressive Era network, this book could work well for an environmental history course.