Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Recent reads: Simpson, The Civil War in the East

I just finished Brooks D. Simpson’s The Civil War in the East, and entered my notes into Zotero. This short work published by Praeger is a quick read and well worth it. Simpson argues that no matter how decisive historians view the western theater, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb’s contemporaries – ranging from concerned citizens to demanding newspapermen to the meddling presidents and government officers in the not too distant capitals -- always considered the eastern front to be the most important field of combat. Although this book is chockfull of interpretative nuggets I have two major takeaways that will shape how I teach the Civil War in my community college survey courses. First, Simpson argues that General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck made a colossal blunder in recalling the Army of the Potomac from peninsula campaign in the summer of 1862. Simpson argues that Halleck should have done the opposite; that is, removed the incompetent commander and left the army on the peninsula where it could have threatened the rebel capital and altered the strategic calculus in the eastern theater. Instead, what followed was a series of bloody battles (some won by the Union and some by the rebels) that produced no decisive strategic outcome. Connected to this (and my second takeaway) is Simpson’s argument that the battle of Gettysburg was not a decisive, war altering event. High water mark of the rebellion notwithstanding, he considers it as yet another one in the series of bloody yet ultimately indecisive battles. Like other victories (Rebels at Second Bull Run and Union at Antietam) destroying the enemy force was beyond the grasp of the exhausted victors.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Diary of a Public Man

Ever since I read The Historian as Detective by Robin Weeks, I have been fascinated with the “Diary of a Public Man.” Published in four installments by the North American Review in 1879, the Diary appeared to be an authentic insider’s account of the dramatic succession winter of 1860-61. Its intimate accounts of famous players, especially Abraham Lincoln, during this tumultuous time period in the history of the republic only added to its appeal. Perhaps the most famous part of the Diary is a story of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. Noticing that Lincoln could not find a place to set his signature stove pipe hat, his rival Senator Stephen A. Douglass took it from him and held it throughout the ceremony. This episode has been relayed in many books since the appearance of the Diary in 1879. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss used this story as late as yesterday in a tweet. Yet, the Diary is the only source for this story. It seems odd that no other attendee noticed this act at the time. The Diary contains several stories of this caliber, but it rings so true and has been proven correct in several instances, that historians have had difficulty discarding this unique behind-the-scenes account of the start of the Civil War.

Several historians have attempted to identify the Diary’s author. Frank Maloy Anderson’s 1948 book, The Mystery of the Public Man, was, for over half a century, the most detailed and in depth analysis of the question. Anderson argued that Sam Ward, a well known and connected lobbyist, authored the Diary. Using a rudimentary diary of events written during the winter of 1860-61, Anderson argued, Ward later added the colorful stories that made their way into the pages of the North American Review. Not all historians were convinced of Anderson’s claim that the docuement was a fabrication or his of assertion that Ward as its author, and the Diary has been used as a source in sixty-four years since the publication of Anderson's book. 

Historian Daniel W. Crofts believes he has solved the mystery of the "public man's" identity. In the October issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, he announced that the Diary’s author was William Henry Hurlbert, a journalist (this is the condensed argument of  his book A Succession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hurlbert and “The Diary of a Public Man” (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010). In addition to naming a different author, Crofts' finding differed from Anderson in one other significant point. Instead of viewing the Diary as a genuine document from the time it purports to cover with fictional stories thrown in later, Crofts finds that the Diary is a complete and total fabrication. What I find more important, however, is how Crofts explains why Hurlbert would do such a thing. It was not a mere hoax; Crofts had a political agenda. Crofts argues Hurlbert purposefully sought to challenge the memory of the Civil War as was forming in the minds of his fellow Americans. As someone who considered the war and its death toll to be a tragic failure in statesmanship, he crafted an account that depicted the road to war as anything but an inevitable conflict. He deplored both the Lost Cause ideology of the south as well as the bloody flag waving of the north. And he made a case -- albeit a fictional one-- that President Lincoln was not a saintly figure. One wonders what Hurlbert the journalist would have thought of Spielberg's Lincoln.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reading and Reseach in the Digital Age

I really enjoyed William Cronon’s Perspectives article on reading in the digital age. He makes an interesting comparison between ancient scrolls and the scrolling we do within digital media. Despite powerful search engines, finding what you need within an electronic text can be an arduous and time consuming task. My own example of this is scrolling through the online versions of the Public Papers of the presidents of the United States. The University of Michigan has all the volumes from Presidents Hoover to Obama (with the exception of FDR) on line. It can take some time to find and navigate to the item I want to find. On the other hand, if I get my fat tuckus out of my chair, away from desk, and to the library, I can usually find what I need in a matter of seconds through the old fashioned method of thumbing through the book. That is not to say that the University of Michigan site is not a valuable one, but that it proves Cronon’s point that scrolling through electronic text is much like scrolling through ancient scrolls. In his view we are going backwards in time and forsaking the benefits of the more accessible codex. A step forward, in other words, is, in some ways, a step backwards in time.

One thing Cronon did not mention in his article is the growing trend, especially among popular historians, of writing from google books and other internet sources. There is an odd resurgence of works from before 1920. While this can be a boon to historians who are able to access hard to locate popular magazines and other valuable primary sources, the problem arises when old historiography is carelessly cited and recycled because it is readily available. I will review an example of one of these books in the near future.

Friday, November 2, 2012


Employers telling their employees to vote for a candidate? A candidate accused of being a radical? Bad economy? Am I the only one thinking I woke up in 1896?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Baseball vs. Football

This morning on NPR sports commentator Frank DeFord used the recent passing of historian Jacques Barzun to inform his listeners that football has replaced baseball as America's national sport. By proclaiming in 1954 that one had to understand baseball was to understand America, Barzun provided DeFord with a foil. DeFord went on to play a clip from comedian one of George Carlin's hilarious rants on sports ("In football you wear a helmet. In baseball you wear a cap.") DeFord further added that baseball still might be our national pastime, but he emphasized the first part of that word.

It might be true that football has eclipsed baseball, but I protest this. While I enjoy football, I love baseball. I could live without the former, but never the latter. Sure it can be slow as pitchers dawdle between pitches and batters go through a checklist of adjustments to their batting gloves, helmet, shoes, etc. When it is most exciting baseball is a battle between two individuals in a way that football can never be. Baseball is a team sport that relies almost exclusively on individual performance. It comes down to one batter versus one pitcher. Moreover, baseball's greatest moments have been those when the unlikely hero emerges. With a pardon to my friends from Boston, I call Bucky Dent's famous 1978 homerun over the green monster as exhibit A. To me this represents the best character of American democracy. We all work for the common welfare, but we can all stand out as individuals. The unlikely can happen and the most unlikely person can be a hero.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Presidential Debates

Two thoughts on the presidential debates:

1. Regarding issues, I am disappointed that the environment was hardly mentioned at all. It seems to rank near the bottom of either candidate's agenda. Granted, it was mentioned in the form of green energy (which focused on the energy part, not the green element), and there are plenty of critical economic and diplomatic issues (one might even say crises to discuss), but I still would have liked one solid question focused squarely on environmental policy.

2. From a historical perspective, I wish they had had debates before 1960. Wouldn't it be priceless to see FDR in a debate in one of his four elections? He was so good with reporters questions that I have to think it would have been entertaining, if nothing else. I am sure he would have avoided a debate in 1944 on the grounds that he was too busy winning the war (and to cover up his declining health). Also to see Eisenhower and Stevenson, McKinley and Bryan, Truman and Dewey, or, the my favorite idea yet, a free for all between Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Eugene Debs, and Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Would any of these debates have tipped an election? We cannot tell, of course, because they did not happen, but I feel safe concluding that if debates have been a decisive factor in the recent past, they would have had the same effect before 1960.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saloons in the Progressive Era

I recently read Royal Melendy's "The Saloon in Chicago" published in
Journal of Sociology in 1910. A sociologist, Melendy examined the saloon as a cultural institution. He was consciously working to disarm the arguments of the hysterical reformers -- the Carrie Nation types -- who viewed saloons as nothing more or less than dens if iniquity. To counter this powerful group, Melendy argues that these establishments served as important community centers by providing valuable services. Using a characterization of his own, he sympathetically depicts the hard working saloon patron who needed to escape his dismal, cramped tenement apartments with its chorus of crying kids, and his "unkempt wife," after a hard day at work to socialize with his peers. In addition to this purely social function, Melendy argues saloons allowed patrons to discuss politics (playing to the Progressive ideal of democracy), and do what we a century later call networking for employment. They provided newspapers and other literature a common laborer would have considered a luxury if he had to pay for them out of his own pocket. Moreover, saloons provided entertainment, unavailable in the home. Finally, Melendy argues that the 163 saloons he studied, 111 provided free food. This fact led him to argue that saloons did more good for the hungry in the Windy Cit than "all the charity organizations in Chicago combined." In his study, Melendy found that the complimentary grub was available to all comers, even those who did not consume alcohol. Having presented the saloon as force of good in the community, he does admit that it had some unpleasant features as well, such as gambling and prostitution, but he great downplays them. Regarding the former, only 3 of the 163 saloons he surveyed permitted gambling. As for the latter, he argues an occasional prostitute can slip in, but it is a rare event. Overall, he was probably much closer to the truth than were the the temperance and prohibitionists who implied that every patron of a saloon was a drunken mess who neglected his family by blowing his entire paycheck on booze, gambling, and prostitution. On the other hand, I felt Melendy overplayed the free food aspect of the saloon. It was not a soup kitchen. Then, as now, they were businesses that used salty snacks to lure in thirsty customers. In a way I felt bad for Melendy. He was a sociologist when that field felt it was at the height of its power. They believed government officials would actually use their objective and scientific studies for more effective policy planning. As we know, they were largely ignored. The great W.E.B. DuBois grew disgusted at how his work on African-Americans in Philadelphia failed to stir decisive political action. We also know that the prohibitionists triumphed in the following decade despite Melendy's best arguments that saloons provided valuable services to their local communities. Nevertheless, we historians must be thankful for their work, which has been and continues to be, an outstanding window in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Internet Sources for Historians

Back to blogging! Over the last month I have been working diligently on the copy edits for my upcoming biography of William Temple Hornaday to be published by the University of Virginia Press next year. In my acknowledgements I thank the creators of Google Books,, the Library of Congress website, and others, for making historical sources more accessible. Some question the efficacy of using internet sources. Dan Feller, editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson rose the issue on H-SHEAR (Humanities Net list serve for the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic). Similar discussions have taken place in other forums as well. In a thoughtful summary of the issues of internet sources on The Historical Society blog, Bland Whitley pointed out that there are two fundamental problems. One is the lack of permanence of the still relatively new internet. It is reasonable to ask, can one find a source to verify a citation? After all, the internet is littered with broken links. This presents a large problem for those citations that do not refer to an original book (say a book from Google Books). I have noticed that many non-history, non-fiction books site numerous websites, including blog entries. The second problem, as Feller argued, is the departure from the historian's doctrine of using the original or standard source. For example, if I am looking for President Chester Arthur's 1882 State of the Union Address, the standard source is (as for all 19th century presidents), James D. Richardson's Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the President's of the United States, a multi-volume work available in most libraries. Yes, there are other sources with this document on the internet, including many websites (some academic and some not) containing the annual messages of the chief executive to the legislative branch. I understand this and I think Feller is correct to raise this issue. There are numerous fragments of documents, misquoted or incorrect "documents", and otherwise altered primary sources on the internet that cannot be relied upon and should not be used by a professional historian. On the other hand, I think the internet is a great treasure trove of the best kinds of documents that historians require to do their work. These are the ones I refer my students to. For example, there are many scanned editions of newspapers that are hard to locate in their original form. My favorite such source is the Brooklyn Historical Society's copies of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. The Library of Congress,, and other sites have numerous other scanned newspaper copies as well. Likewise, Cornell University has digitized many 19th century journals. These are credible sites to obtain primary source material that I would have not otherwise been able to utilize, except at great cost. I consider Google Books a wonderful site. In one case it helped me locate the original source of a quote when I "quoted" it from a secondary source. In my example, I found a quote by Hornaday in the Annual Report of the New York Zoological Source, that I had previously quoted from William Bridge's history of the Bronx Zoo. Internet sources, including digitized versions of periodicals, have search engines that make it so much easier and time efficient to mine them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Storm over Texas

In my most optimistic mood, I would like our presidential campaigns to be an
intellectual tour de force of opposing ideas and counterpoints. Let the nation chose between rival plans for the future. In someways this is how the father of our two party system envisioned elections. Martin Van Buren understood that if he created a political party on Jefferson's earlier model, an opposition party would naturally form. Van Buren constructed his party on powerful alliance between the small farmers of his native New York and the influential planters of Virginia. Although the opposition Whig Party had many disparate elements, a core ideology of economic nationalism came to define and unite them. Dubbed the Second Party System by historians, this division between Democrats and Whigs lasted two decades before the question of slavery in the territories wrecked it. In Storm over Texas, Joel Silbey locates the ground zero of this transformation in discussion of Texas annexation. Both Presidents Jackson and Van Buren considered Texas annexation a distraction from their more important economic agenda. It took a man without a party, John Tyler, to see Texas as a political life line. Not only did Tyler push the issue, his secretary of state, John C. Calhoun, turned it from a question of national expansion into one of sectional (read slavery) security. Tyler's 1844 re-election bid, such as it was, lasted only a few short, and early, months, but he had already poisioned the well. In 1844 James K. Polk defeated Henry Clay in one of the most important presidential contests in our history. It might have been a close race, hinging on a few thousand votes in New York, but it unleashed a sequence of events that led to Civil War. Had Clay taken occupancy of the White House, the future (our past) could have been very different. It is doubtful Clay would have sought territory from or war with Mexico. Who knows what would have have happened after that. On the other hand,as Silbey reminds us, Calhoun already released the sectional/slavery genie from the bottle. Silbey is a less critical of Calhoun for advancing something so obviously in his own political interests, than he is of Van Buren and his northern Democrat"Barn Burner" allies who got right down in the mud with the South Carolinian. Moreover, the patronage obsessed Barn Burners used the slavery issue to attack the president, thus further exacerbating the situation. The frame for future discussions and arguments had been built.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party, 1912

Just finished Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy by Sidney M. Milksis. The thesis is perfectly encapsulated in the title. In waging a presidential campaign of ideas over party, Theodore Roosevelt ushered in a new era of issues and personality-based elections. Parties were the clear loser in this new model. Institutional notions like loyalty and balance of faction became superseded by adherence to ideas. Natually, Miksis does not see the Progressive Party as a quixotic campaign of a retired pol, but a movement waiting its fulfillment. Progressives across the spectrum had gone on record in favor of a new political regime, one that sought to restrain the hands of the machine and replace the smoke filled room with an enlightented citizenry using tools of open democracy. Theodore Roosevelt certianly marched forward of Taft and Wilson in calls for primaries, referendum, and the like. One of the most interesting things about this campaign is how little Roosevelt stumped on his own past experience as president. Psychologically, this seemed to give him more space as an underdog and outsider (always the sweet spot in American politics), but it really was about chosing the direction of the country for the next generation. If the Progressive Party was more a baby in need of a midwife than it was Roosevelt's vanity campaign what happened after 1912? In addition to Roosevelt's abandonment, its constant infighting among diverse constitiuents, amd the Great War, one must add the progressive's strong belief in a candidate focused election, meaning they had no stomach for the gritty business of building a political party.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Environment and Warfare in the South Pacific

I am just finishing Eric Bergerud’s excellent Touched with Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific. This analysis focuses on the men, conditions, and structures of the opposing armies much more than on the generals and their plans. One of the best parts of this book is a chapter devoted to the unique environment of Papua/New Guinea, which was an active participant in the war as much as any other factor. Although small, there is a growing interest in examining the cross section between military history and the environment. My one big take away item for the role of the environment is that neither the Japanese nor the Americans/Australians were fully prepared for jungle warfare. It was an unfamiliar environment for both sides. Malaria and jungle rot (sounds like real horrible stuff) affected both sides. The torrential downpours and omnipresent mud tormented the combatants without discrimination. In fact, the allies were a little better prepared for it both logistically and medically than were the Japanese, although movement of supplies, including quinine, was slow in the miserable conditions. What made the Japanese soldier appear to be such better jungle fighters can be attributed to their intense indoctrination in the code of Bushido that they received in their training, not from some inherent predisposition to the terrain. This was an orchestrated effort by the army to counter the fact that their men were poorly equipped and supplied compared to their contemporaries (the navy definitely got the gravy in imperial Japan). Bergerud also discusses the native peoples of the region who wanted the war to go away. Australian Coast Watchers could survive in isolated regions, but the individual Japanese soldier and small patrols ran the risk of natives picking them off if they got the chance.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Chester Arthur: A Response to a Review

My book Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politican and President
(Nova History, 2007) is ranked an awesome 4,316,629 in its list of sales figures. At various times a couple of years ago it was a little less than 2,000,000th place. Such are the sales figures of a lesser known president from a very small press. I would like to take a minute to address some of the comments by an anonymous reviwer who scored my book a 2 out of 5. 1. This was not designed to be a work of primary research, but a synthesis of existing scholarship. Although individual books are available for purchase, the plan is to sell the complete set to libraries as a reference tool. The synthetic approach works much better for those presidents like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincon, the Roosevelts, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, etc., who are the subjects of numerous biographies and are firmly rooted in historiographical debates. There were only two biographies of Arthur before mine, George Howe's A Quarter Century of Machine Politics and Thomas Reeve's Gentleman Boss. The former contains several errors, the latter is still the best biography of Arthur (as the reviewer and I agree). What I decided to do was to add in the thirty years of scholarship of the Gilded Age political environment that came after Reeves's work. This includes some excellent work by historians, such as Charles Calhoun, Justus Doenecke, Ari Hoogenboom, Allan Peskin, Mark Wahlgren Summers, to name a few. 2. Continuing on the subject of primary research, I did use what is left of Arthur's papers (he burned most if them, saving an odd collection of receipts, letters, and other documents), contemporary magazine and news paper editorials (especially the Nation), Richardson's Compilation of Messages and Papers, and published and unpublished collections of papers of Arthur's contemporaries. The fact that this project was designed by the publisher to be a quick summation of existing scholarship completed in two years, precluded me from an exhaustive examination of all primary documents that might have touched on Arthur's life. 3. I probably was a little negative towards Arthur, as the reviewer noted. There are two reasons for this. First, the truth of the matter is that I do not find him to have been a very good president. He was a horrible vice president, one of the worst in our nation's history. As veep, Arthur worked against Garfield at every turn of the very short administration. Arthur is generally credited as a machine politician turned civil service reformer. Historians consider it is strongest legacy. I disagree with this assessment. Garfield was shot by a delusional maniac who believed the president owed him an ambassadorship for making some speeches during the campaign. After he shot Garfield, Charles Guiteau shouted out Arthur's name, implicating the vice president. With weak influence in Congress, Arthur could do little to alter the shape of the Pendleton Act during the legislative process, and there was no way he could have vetoed it. As chief executive Arthur followed the letter of the civil service reform. He did not, however, follow its spirit. This, to me, makes a difference, undercutting the argument that he "converted" to reform. His hands were tied. He was weak and recalled the very unpleasant experience of Andrew Johnson. Nevertheless, he attempted to use patronage to build his Stalwart faction. That it never turned into the kind of debacle that bedeviled both Hayes and Garfield can be attributed to Arthur's political weakness. Matt Quay of Pennsylvania, for example, took all Arthur could give him, but turned around and betrayed him. There was nothing Arthur could do to retaliate. Second, my negative assessment of Arthur differs sharply with the two aforementioned existing biographies, which were largely positive. What is the point of writing a book that totally echoes another? There are a couple of points in which Reeves and I do disagree. Reeves does not think Arthur was serious about obtaining the nomination in 1884. To me it seems strange that Arthur devoted so much of his limited energy on something he did not want. To me at least, it was totally out of character. On another point I think that Arthur's treatment of the tariff is a more significant legacy. He preserved the protectionist system when it was under siege and blunted the strength of reform with a commission system. That system remained in place (excepting the short period of Woodrow Wilson's presidency) until the end of World War II.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

When the Emperor was Divine

When The Emperor was Divine, a novel by Julie Otsuka is a powerful story of a Japanese-American family during the Second World War. It is a short book and might be a good story to use in an American history class. I have used fiction in the past (Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Edward Abbey's Monkeywrench Gang, for example) and it generally works well to encourage students to deconstruct ideas and events. The trick to make it effective is to know how representative the story is to wider experience. I have not read enough on the internment experience to know the answer to this question. For example, Otsuka's family returns to their house after the war. How often did this occur? This is an important part of her story because the author can show how different their life was after the war by contrasting their pre-war and post-war lives. Their status in the community certainly suffered from the stigma of internment. How representative is the father, who was interned the very night of the Pearl Harbor attack and does not reunite with his family until December 1945? Again, it is a crucial part of the story, and I found the last chapter "Confession" to be particularly insightful (I am still debating the meaning of the final sentence). He returns a truly broken man. In another clear indication of how internment impacted the family, the dream of a return to normalcy is crushed the minute they see "Papa" at the train station, four years after the FBI spirited him away.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Tench Coxe

Ok, this is a little outside the realm of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, but it
falls in the public history category. All historians should consider themselves public historians, especially when it comes to commemoration of past events and people. Last week I was in philadelphia to do some site seeing. I have always been a big fan of Benjamin Franklin and was drawn to his grave in Christ Church cemetery. It is a rather large marble slab glittering from the many pennies and nickels that were tossed on it (not sure why anyone does this). Although he may be the most illustrious occupant of the cemetery, there are others of note interred there, such as Dr. Benjamin Rush, for example. In walking around I noticed that there is one noteworthy individual not marked in the map or mentioned on the website, that of Tench Coxe (1755-1824), an understudy of Alexander Hamilton who co-wrote the seminal Report on Manufactures (1791). Coxe later held some other governmental posts during the early republic, and he played hardball politics in the 1800 election by releasing an controversial letter penned by John Adams. If nothing else he proves that the founders were no saints when it came to politics. They waged bitter, personal campaigns in ways anyone decrying the current tone of political debate should recognize. I would think this would make him just as noteworthy as John Taylor, who was a grave digger at Christ Church for 50 years.

Monday, June 25, 2012

R.I.P Lonesome George

In 1899 Theodore Roosevelt wrote to ornithologist Frank Chapman, "When I hear of the destruction of a species I feel just as if all the works of some great writer had perished; as if we had lost all instead of only part of Polybius or Livy." The death of Lonesome George, the last pinta tortoise, is such a lamentable loss. How lonely it must be to be the last of your kind.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ill Fares the Land

File this under recent reads. I recently finished Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land. This his the second work of his I have read. He is a great stylist and very adroit at tying themes together. I think his Post War is required reading for anyone interested in the 20th Century. Ill Fares the Land is a lamentation on the decline of the welfare state over the last quarter century of the twentieth and first decade of the twenty-first centuries. The theme that resonated most with me is that social democracy was fashioned in response to both the revolutionary left and greed of the plutocrats (sound familiar SHGAPE fans?). Thus it might seem out of place in a world in which communist revolution seems a quaint historical notion, but he retorts that the greed of the plutocrats was not swept into the ash bin of history. One threat, he argues, is enough to justify the maintenance of the social welfare state. He makes Gramsci -like arguments that big business has established such an hegemony in the last few decades that we don't realize how pervasive it is and how threatening it can be to individual liberty, quality of life, and democracy. Too many assumptions go unchallenged, he argues. He argued that the clock on social reform is being turned back so quickly it is as if the 20th century did not happen. What an extraordinary idea. The first thing that popped into my mind was Bill Buckley's comment that the conservative movement stands athwart the tracks of time yelling stop at the moving train. Now the train, at least according to Judt, has reversed direction. This, I think provides some great fodder for classroom discussions (which I will try in the fall in my US 2 survey). First, how accurate is it? The medicare prescription benefit is of recent vintage as is the new healthcare law (aka Obama or Obameny care). Judt cites the welfare reform law of 1996 (he has no use at all for Clinton or Blair) and the European privatization of hitherto public services as examples of decline. Either way, this, I think, can be a good discussion point for the Progressive Era. Start at the beginning and then ask students what they think about it 100 years later. Second, and more to Buckley's point, can the 20th century be disentangled? Was the search for order that created social democracy also the same search for order that produced totalitarianism, global war, and mass death? In other words, can the good be separated from the bad in historical experience? Finally, if Judt is correct, does it stand to reason that we revert to the Gilded Age?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Favorite Historical Legislators

I originally posted this on my FaceBook page in September 2009. Now that Ted Kennedy has passed on to his post-Senate career, it is time consider some other legislative titans in American history, lest we think that Kennedy was the only Senator in the history of the US Constitution who ever made a difference. So here are a couple of my favorites from days gone by: 1. John Randolph of Virginia. He served from the 1790s to the 1820s. Randolph was the first maverick in American history. A supporter of Jefferson when Jefferson became president in 1801, Randolph later demanded Jefferson do more to restrict the size of the federal government. Randolph led the impeachment efforts against Federailst judges. A colorful character, he strode up and down the aisles of the Senate during one of his three or four hour speeches (they all did that without teleprompters) dressed in riding regalia, slapping his riding crop on nearby desks to emphasize his points, and taking draughts of liquor from a barrel one of his poor slaves carried behind him. 2. James Madison of Virginia. Madison served a short time in the 1790s, but his role was critical. He shepparded the Bill of Rights through Congress as he promised he would during the Constutitional ratification process, and, although he and Hamilton worked together to achieve ratification of a strong national government, Madison set about to create an interpretation for a smaller, states-centered national government. 3. Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay served from about 1810 to 1850 in both the house and the senate. I would argue that Clay was the most important legislator, second perhaps only to Madison. Clay had his hands in all the important legislation of his tenure on such topics as banking (when the country was building a banking a system) and a tariff (how we financed the government and protected our industries). More importantly, Clay brokered three critical compromises: 1820, 1833, and 1850 when the country could have been deeply torn by sectional strife over the question of slavery. 4. Stephen Douglas of Illinois. This is the Douglas of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. In 1854 Douglas wanted to become president and he decided he could do this by winning over the southerner slaveholders and the northern Jacksonians by extending popular sovereighty (let the settlers and not Congress decide if there would be slavery in the territory) to the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. It was a bad idea becase the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had already settled slavery in that territory and Douglas had to revoke it. His Kansas-Nebraska Bill did more to bring about the Civil War than anything else in the 1850s. It turned the north against the Democrats and turned the south to Democrats (meaning that the parties became strictly sectiional which led to further polarization) and the popular sovereignty formula led to a civil war in Kansas that only made matters ten times worse. And Douglas never got to be president! 5.Charles Summner of Massachussets, late 1840s-1870s. Sumner was more than a windbag. He stood up for civil rights before the Civil War (and took a physical beating for it on the Senate floor), during the Civil War (pushed Lincoln towards Emancipation and for the 13th Amendment), and during Reconstruction (through the Civil Rights Acts and the 14th Amendment). Unfortunately his death marked the end of Reconstruction. His last bill passed, the posthumous Civil Rights Act of 1875, was watered down and then further weakned by the US Supreme Court.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Japan and Oregon United by a Tsunami

On March 11, 2011 a Tsunami struck the east coast of Japan with devastating effects. Over 15,000 people lost their lives with tens of thousands more injured or missing. Over a million buildings were damaged or destroyed. The economic cost is staggering, over $200 billion. Most of the world saw the devastating footage of the rising ocean swallowing up towns, washing away buildings, cars, boats, trucks, and anything else in its wake. Through television and the internet anyone in the world could see what the tsunami did to the people and communities in its path. The tsunami also triggered an ecological crisis. In the weeks that followed it looked possible that the world would face another Chernobylesque meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Thankfully, the world avoided that catastrophe, but it rose questions about the dangers of nuclear power. In May 2011 Germany announced that it would phase out its nuclear power plants over the next decade. One year later the tsunami is still causing ecological aftereffects. The tons of debris swept out to sea is washing up on the Oregon coast. The picture of the dock to the right came ashore earlier this week. Who knows what else will follow, but it is a sign that natural disasters can have a global impact. There are examples from the past, such as the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies) in 1815, which caused 1816 to be known as the year without a summer. But our lives are so much different in the 21st century. Economies are tied closely together and a significant reduction in consumption or even manufactured goods (depending on the area hit) will send economic aftershocks throughout the globe. Debris, too, can have impact on other nations, even ones thousands of miles away as the other side of the Pacific Ocean! It is not just garbage, but scientists are concerned about invasive species that might grab a ride. And, of course, as the examples of Chernobyl and Fukushima illustrate, our modern sources of energy (and we should add synthetic products and chemicals) can have serious ecological and human consequences if they are disbursed into the environment without control and at unsafe levels.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Recent Reads

I admit I have strayed a little off the Gilded Age/Progressive Era/Environmental topics lately in my reading. Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman. Ok this is really off topic, and I am not surely entirely why I picked it up in the first place. SPOILER ALERT!!!.... The answer is yes Jesus existed, but Ehrman, an admitted agnostic, argues that the historical Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic preacher and not the Messiah of Christian Faith. Ehrman takes up his cudgel against an almost conspiratorial group of deniers (he refers to them as "mythicists") who claim that early Christians invented Jesus. I won't go into their arguments, but Ehrman effectively counters their assertions. He shows that much of their scholarship is based on poor reading of the sources. As an historian I found Ehrman's methodology most interesting. There are few sources outside the Gospels that can corroborate Jesus's life. He reads deep into the Gospels, letters, and Book of Acts, extrapolates sections of the missing "Q" gospel, to construct an oral tradition that can be dated to the mid-30s when Jesus was crucified. I don't know if I will ever have much of a reason to use this methodology in my own work, but it was neat to see a demonstration of it. Moreover, it does show how historians can squeeze yet more evidence from existing sources. The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. I love to read and I do enjoy reading books about reading. In this delightful book Jacobs makes the case for "whim." He asks us to read for pleasure and to pick those books we enjoy reading. Go young man to the world of print and get lost in a good story! It made me realize that as an historian I tend to read almost exclusively for information. Books are tools. I scavenge them for the data I want, their interpretations, arguments, and the like, and then move onto the next topic. I take copious notes and store them in a file cabinet. It must be admitted that the notes assist my understanding of the book, but I seldom consult them after I file them away. There are thousands of pages. All of the books I have read are catalogued in Zotero. For reasons that are not entirely clear even to myself, I also record most them in Mendeley, especially if I have a pdf download. Mendeley has the advantage of allowing me access this list from my cell phone (if I should be in a library without my laptop). Its great disadvantage is that it does not have Chicago Manual of Style for citations and is useless to me without it. Anyway, Jacobs reminded me that long ago I read only for pleasure. I started on page one, became absorbed in a story, and read to the last page, never thinking of skimming ahead or searching for reviews in numerous databases. Once in a while I still pick up some pleasure reading fiction, but Jacobs reminded me how long ago that was. I realized how much I miss that form of reading and I vow to add whim to my reading diet. The End by Ian Kershaw. As readers of this blog are aware, I find nazi era Germany a fascinating study in human behavior. Why did the German people follow Hitler? Was it something that could only happen at a particular time and place under extraordinary circumstances, or can that sort of insanity reoccur elsewhere? A corollary question is why didn't the German people see that the war was unwinable and that great pain awaited them? Especially when one considers that most of the German civilian and a disproportionate number of German military casualties came after the failed July 20th plot of 1944. Of course, the answer is complicated. Kershaw argues the Nazi regime, or at least the leader, remained fairly popular right up to early 1945. Perhaps there was a secret weapon? Perhaps his military genius would bring about a sudden victory (ala a successful outcome to the Battle of the Bulge)? Maybe people were terrified of challenging a brutal regime? All of these played some part in their loyalty, but there were two other factors. First, the regime, from the top to the bottom, realized there was no future for them in post-war Germany. They were as good as dead and they knew it. There was no incentive to change course. In fact, their desire to prevent their domestic enemies from enjoying any victory increased the violence inside the reich. Second, the nazi myth that the great stab in the back led to defeat in World War I deeply inculcated the population and military with an intense loyalty. No one wanted to be equated with the great villains of the prior generation. The failed July 20 bomb plot against Hitler only increased loyalty. This exposes as a lie the common claim by Germans after the war that the Allied doctrine of unconditional surrender prevented an early end to the war. That had nothing to do with it. On a more humorous note, I found the moment of surrender, when Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel stopped to salute the Allied delegation with his raised baton only to receive icy stares and silence. Maybe Hitler was correct when he once commented that the Field Marshal did not have the brains of a cinema usher. At the least he was delusional. Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz was even more delusional. He really thought he could remain as leader of the reich even after the surrender.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Intolerance in Colorado: An attack on Regis University

Keeping with the theme of intolerance in Colorado, I include the picture to the right. It is of a plaque on the west wall of Regis
University along Lowell Blvd. in Denver Colorado. Regis is a Jesuit run university. When the Jesuits relocated their school from Las Vegas, New Mexico to Morrison, Colorado, and finally to Denver in the 1880s, it had the very Catholic sounding name of Sacred Heart. In the mid-1920s some bigots in white sheets showed up at the gates of Sacred Heart, but the students amply defended themselves and their school. Fearing a recurrence of violence, the Jesuit fathers thought it might be a good idea in the anti-Catholic environment of the 1920s to change the name of the school to something a little less obvious. Thus they re-named their school Regis, after a 17th century French Jesuit named John Francis Regis who was canonized in 1737. Renaming the school to Regis was a wise move that allowed the Jesuits to retain their heritage and dodge the bigots who knew only the most obvious signs of Catholicism. The plaque reads, "This portion of the old permitter wall has been preserved in remembrance of a student stand against the Ku Klux Klan. In the mid-1920s, according to Jesuits here at the time, word filtered to the priests that the KKK was planning a march on Regis [Sacred Heart] with the intent to burn a cross on the lawn. The jesuits put out a call to students -both boarders and day students- to protect the campus and bring baseball bats. The call was heeded and Regis [Sacred Heart] students were posted ever five feet armed with bats. The KKK, which was organizing a few blocks from campus, received word of the student buildup and disbanded without marching on the campus. Later, the Jesuits found that some of the students were armed with more than baseball bats. Some had brought along pistols."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Colorado History Museum Review

This Saturday I made my way to the brand new Denver History Museum. The exhibits included displays on 1920s small town life in Keota, Bent Fort in the 1830s-1850s, the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, the Japanese Internment Camps of World War II, the Silverton Mine, Olympics, and a summer vacation resort in the mountains for African Americans. The focus is largely on biography, particularly learning about common people. In the Keota exhibit, for example, the visitor learns of the lives of those who actually lived in the town, from the school teacher who returned to the small town after college to the store keeper whose business formed the hub of the town (it was also the post office and lending library). There are numerous artifacts from these individuals and others. At Sand Creek, we learn the
event through the experiences of the individuals, from both Cheyenne Indians and white soldiers. Most exhibits contain an interactive display. There is a country store (great for children) and antique car driving experience in Keota. The entrance to the Silverton Mine replicates an elevator ride down the 500 foot shaft. And there is a ski jump simulator in the Olympic section. This and the Keota car were popular items. The Fort Bent section contained a computer game/simulation. Well done video presentations are another feature of the exhibits. These films contain a good mix of historical context and footage with personal experiences. The African-American vacation camp in the Rocky Mountains demonstrated the value, and rarity, of being able to escape segregation and prejudice in American cities. The video for the Japanese internment was particularly powerful. I was stunned, even as a historian with knowledge of this deplorable incident from our nation’s past, by how the news reels depicted this to the American peoples. No attempt was made to obscure the fact that only a handful of all those of Japanese descent living in American might be disloyal, but the government rounded them all up any way. One talking head boldly and proudly declared, “This is how a democracy handles its problems.” Really !?! They made it sound like a free trip to a vacation resort. One Japanese internee sold his $100,000 business for $5,000 and another young man noticed on arrival that the machine
guns they were told would protect them from mob violence were pointed inside the camp and not outside. The Japanese internment camp exhibit was chilling. So was the KKK uniform on the second floor. I just turned the corner and there it was. I think Americans in general do not understand how prevalent the KKK was in the north in the 1920s. Sometime in the 1980s the Freeport, NY (a coastal Long Island town with a large African American population) fire department was cleaning out its trophy case and found one from the 1920s presented by the KKK. It was a shocking find, but another reminder of the KKK’s popularity in the north during the “Roaring Twenties.” All and all, I think the museum gives Coloradans a well crafted view of several moments of their state’s past. If I had one complaint, it would be that there was not much celebration of the better parts of our past. Like all societies, Americans have had regrettable incidents. It is impossible to overlook the original sin of slavery and the recurrent issue of race. Nor, can one deny the brutal treatment of Native Americans. Yet, the American, and dare I say Coloradan, experience possesses positive virtues that need to be remembered as well.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Red Flag

After reading Tony Judt's classic history of Europe, Postwar, and Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (in which he largely updates classic Jeffersonian arguments for smaller government to meet the rise of the authoritarian regimes of the 1930s) I decided I wanted to know a little more about communism as a separate and distinguished historical idea David Priestland's Red Flag fit the bill. Priestland begins with the French Revolution and its impact on Karl Marx. The young German carried the calls for liberty, fraternity, and equality into the economic realm. Marx produced an enormous amount of writing, which resulted in two different and largely distinct variants of communism. The younger Marx was more radical and romantic in his views of class struggle, the middle class, and effects of revolution. This romantic vision espoused democracy and freedom as the primary ideals of communism and saw revolution as a productive purge of society. In the wake of the failed revolutions of the mid-19th century, an older Marx questioned the wisdom and motives of the working and middle classes. What emerged was a more modernist and technocratic vision. Instead of rights and democracy, the modernist persuasion pursued planning. Lenin made important contributions (hence the phrase "Marxism-Leninism)to the development and emergence of communism. He espoused revolution, sharpened the divide
with non-revolutionary leftists such as Social Democrats, and recognized that culture counted as much as economics in ushering in a new order. He also (unintentionally) illustrated the limits of pragmatic reforms. After his radical revolution, Lenin realized a democracy of the working classes could not be achieved instantly and instituted his New Economic Policy (NEP). This concession to individual initiative and private property failed to achieve the desired results and things looked very bleak indeed inside the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. Stalin emerged after Lenin's death in 1924 to implement a modernist version of Marxism. Priestland argues that Stalin was not a monomaniacal dictator, but a true believer of Marxism following the only path available after the failure of the NEP and war with Poland. Stalin's modernist policy focused on industrial development, worker heroism (the joy of sacrifice in building a socialist system should be reward enough for any good comrade), nationalism, and party guided self-criticism (which I only read as a euphemism for purges and rigid ideological purity). If Stalinism stood in disrepute in 1941 as a result of the purges and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, the Soviet victory over fascism in World War II revived communism's appeal. Priestland discounts the Soviet ambitions in Eastern Europe in the immediate postwar and feels George Kennan overstated the case of Stalin's imperial designs. Instead, according to Priestland, Stalin adhered to the Yalta conference by not supplying Greek insurgents and working through the Popular Front. It was the Marshall Plan in 1947 that led Stalin to alter his original assessment of the postwar world and seek to create puppet regimes. "High Stalinism," as Priestland calls it, did not survive its namesake following the Man of Steel's death in 1953, except in few border nations, like East Germany and North Korea. Nikita Khrushchev returned to the romantic variant of communism. While Mao Zedong experimented with both the romantic and modernist persuasions. By the time Leonid Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev communism had been played out. All its variants had been tested. It might have appeared vigorous as it spread in the post-colonial world, but intellectually it was moribund. Brezhnev made one final tweak. In focusing on consumer goods and quality of life, he changed the trajectory of revolution. Instead of some mythical Marxist communist state, the party sought a stable state that ensured economic justice, welfare, and fairness. That it could not live up to these seemingly more modest goals, helps to explain its fall in 1989. This dovetailed nicely with Hayek. Planners cannot plan something as whimsical as personal consumption tastes and fairness and justice are too much in the eye of the beholder to be managed by a centralized government. In the end Priestland argues there are two important lessons. Both of which demonstrate this was not a work trumpeting the triumph of free enterprise in the Cold War! First, pursuit of utopian visions can have disastrous results. I have to say that I do not feel Priestland came fully to terms with the enormity of this disaster in the terms of life lost or the impact on individuals. Comrades Stalin and Mao receive little approbation for the millions who died in pursuit of their policies. While he uses (very well I might add) films and novels as parables for their time, Priestland does not rely on individual human voices. While this is an intellectual history, one still feels a need to paraphrase Carlyle, "if you purge them, do they not bleed?" Second, utopian visions appeal to those who suffer from gross inequality, and this should be addressed. Fair enough, but but this call can be interpreted from so many different perspectives that both President Obama and Governor Romney could use it in their presidential campaigns. I hope this does not appear as a negative review. Priestland took an ambitious topic and created a lively, readable, and informative account that still seemed short at nearly 600 pages! I learned a great deal and will see how it interacts with books I read in the future.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Wikipedia and Historians

I am finally getting around to the last issue of Perspectives magazine. I want to applaud AHA President William Cronon's article on Wikipedia. He argues that Wikipedia's content has improved and that it can be a worthwhile source. After all, we know our students use it despite admonitions not to. And the first result of a google search on any historical topic is usually a wikipedia entry. For some years I have been making corrections and additions to Wikipedia articles, although I must admit my contributions have been minimal. Like Cronon, I think it is better to improve the site than it is to ignore it. As professional historians I feel we have some obligation to do so. Ignoring Wikipedia or dismissing it, only sharpens the divide between the historians of the academy and the larger public who obtains some historical knowledge from this source.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Exploding the Myth of the Aging, Unproductive Professor

The other day waiting outside the Dean's office I decided to peruse through a stack of Chronicle of Higher Education issues. I was particularly drawn to an article from March entitled "Exploding the Myth of the Aging, Unproductive Professor" by Josh Fischman. Honestly, I was a little surprised that some think of older professors as unproductive. They have much more time to devote to producing scholarship than the younger members of the department. A late 30s or early 40s professor is likely to have young children, a heavy teaching load, and departmental or university obligations. A professor in the late 60s or early 70s will likely have grown children, a reduced teaching load, and maybe fewer departmental or university obligations. What truly stunned me in the article, though, was this idea of staged retirement. Meaning that professors have a staged 5-8 year step-down plan. It seems that the aging baby boom professoriate just cannot let go of their jobs and sense of purpose. Personally, I wish they would step aside and create some jobs for the younger members of the profession, like me!

Sunday, March 4, 2012


I am a stamp collector, which explains my choice of illustration for my post on Warren G. Harding. I find American stamps particularly interesting because they commemorate events, individuals, organizations, and places. There is some work for cultural historians to study and interpret which of these have been memorialized in a stamp and which have not. There is also a question of timing that should be examined as well. I find it especially intriguing that during the 1930s and 1940s stamps served the political interests of the president. Franklin D. Roosevelt was an enthusiastic stamp collector; it was one of his few outlets for recreation. Stamps were issued to support NRA, public works projects, and American involvement in World War 2, to name a few. There are few other examples of stamps promoting current political objectives. Imagine a stamp supporting the War on Terror, the invasion of Iraq, or tax cuts. As fun as it is to grapple with the question of why some events and individuals have been commemorated, it is equally fun to see who and what has been neglected or excluded. Here are some of my ideas for stamps of hitherto neglected topics: William James: There have been numerous famous and great American series but none have featured the thinker behind Pragmatism, America's most original contribution to philosophy. For the record there is a John Dewey stamp. Gifford Pinchot: I have no idea how Pinchot has been overlooked. There are stamps commemorating environmentalist like John Muir and Rachel Carson for example, but none for the man who made conservation a national policy. Passenger Pigeon: We have stamps for the buffalo. How about one for a species of hundreds of millions that went extinct? The last passenger pigeon, Martha, died in 1914. Thomas Hart Benton: There are a few stamps for artists (Frederic Remington and Andy Warhol, for example), but none for the greatest regionalist painter. Blair House and Camp David: Numerous buildings and memorials have appeared on stamps, but not these two locations important to the presidency. Blair House has served as an annex to the White House and as a guest home for VIPs. Camp David, of course, is not just a presidential retreat. Several presidents have used the site to host important meetings and summits. Civil Rights: While there have been several stamps on the topic, I think there should be a set covering events from the Montgomery Bus Boycott through to the signing of the Civil Rights Act. It was a hard fought battle to obtain equal and just treatment and I think it is an essential civics lesson that should not be forgotten. Amerigo Vespucci: Several stamps cover explorers, but none for the man who gave our continent its name. The Bartrams: There are some stamps to naturalists and explorers (John J. Audubon and John Fremont, to name but two), but none for the father and son team who cataloged and chronicled much of America's nature in the 18th century. Feel free to post any ideas for missing stamp topics that come to mind!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Warren G. Harding

When Indiana governor Mitch Daniels delivered the Republican response to President Omaba's state of the union address I couldn't help think of another mid-western paragaon of conservativism, Warren G. Harding. I always felt Harding has received a bum rap by historians. Sure there was the Teapot
Dome scandal, the worst case of corruption in the White House before Watergate replaced it at as the crime of the century, and Harding should justly be condemned for that. Many other knocks on him, however, seem overly gossipy. These stories circulated in abundance after Harding's death in 1923. There are stories that he fathered a love child, drank in the White House, had no clue what he was doing, and he suffered from a downright murderous wife (and that was only one theory of his death). Presidential conspiracy theories did not orginate in Dallas in 1963. Historian Robert Ferrell has done some good work debunking many (emphasis on not all) of the stories negative concerning Harding. Historian Robert K. Murray made a demonstrated some of Harding's positive attributes as a president. While niether inflate his significance, their combined (and uncoordinated) vision is of a more constructive leader than is normal. Harding played an important role in American politics, one that has not received due attention. He was the first conservative president in the modern sense. What I mean is that he ran on a distinctly anti-liberal (or anti-progressive) platform promising to undo some of the work of his predecessors. Campaining on the slogan of "Normalcy," he wanted to turn back the clock to the start of the century, presumably to right after the Gold Standard Act of 1900 and before the assassination of fellow Ohioan William McKinley in 1901. Harding campaigned on cutting taxes, reducing business regulations, and rejecting global security organizations. This platform would work appeal to conservatives just as well today.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

James A. Garfield

It seems that James A. Garfield, our 20th president, who served only 7 months in 1881 is undergoing something of a revival lately. I recently read two highly laudatory books on Garfield. I already posted on Adam Goodrich's 1861: The Civil War Awakening. The other is Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic. Both works portray Garfield as a learned man and lover of the humanities, who was true to family and friends (despite one marital infidelity) and an excellent father, despite being a hard working, patriotic, driven man. One gets
the sense that he was out of place in the political profession during he Gilded Age. Born into impoverished circumstances, compounded by his father's early death, Garfield rose through education and hard work to hold the highest office in the land. His rise was downright Lincolnesque. The tow-path canal boy ranking right there with the rail splitter in the pantheon of heroes to the American Dream. I have always had sympathy for Garfield. Although shot in early July, he did not die until the end of September. He was only 49 years old and left behind a devastated and young family. The Garfields were the only White House occupants between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to have small children. Even more tragic is that he would have survived the incident had not his criminally negligent doctors ignored emerging medical science and subjected their patient to painful and harmful treatments. They probed and starved him. The idiots did not even know where the bullet was! Alexander Graham Bell tried to help locate the bullet with a gizmo that was sort of a metal detector, but it never seemed to work. I found the intersection between Bell and Garfield one of the more interesting parts of Millard's book. One could also tie into this the fact that experimental air conditioners were installed to comfort the stricken president in the hot Washington summer. That contraction also failed to work as intended, but I find it interesting that the spirt of inventiveness that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age rallied to the dying president. What is even more striking is that this spirit failed in the most important way when the doctors ignored recent discoveries and maintained the ancient methods of the past. Garfield had a short term, serving only 7 months as a president (during his 3 months on sickbed he signed only one state document). Most of the time was spent fighting Senator Roscoe Conkling and Vice President Chester Arthur over the New York spoils. Garfield was winning that battle, but it is hard to predict if he would have sought a more comprehensive Civil Service reform, or if his battle with Conkling would have been more inline with his predecessor Rutherford B. Hayes's policy of self-serving, selective, and executive driven reform. It was Garfield's assassination by "disappointed office seeker" that led to the Pendleton Civil Service Act.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Life with History

John Hicks's My Life With History was one of the worst books I have ever read. If nothing else he proved that historians do not lead the type of lives others might find interesting. Hicks included many letters to his wife in the late 1930s, which had little to do with history. I was already at the end of my rope with this particular writer anyway. While I had little to quarrel with the Populist Revolt (which at least presented an interpretation), I found another one of Hick's work to rank among the worst books I have ever read. His account of the 1920s, The Republican Ascendancy, is one long editorial in support of the Democratic Party. It's mission so clouded out the historical account, it is laughable. I am not sure what primary sources were available to Hicks when he wrote this book, but he made substantial use of only one manuscript source, the papers of Hiram Johnson. Hicks's standing in my eyes fell even lower when I read in Peter Novick's classic account of 20th century historiography, That Noble Dream, that Hicks wanted to drum historians out of the profession for not supporting FDR. Not surprisingly he was on thin ice with me already when I wasted time with My Life With History. That Hicks did not warn me off the entire genre of historian memoirs is something of a miracle. I have read several others since. I enjoyed those of William McNeill and Forrest McDonald. Neither got bogged down in personal details and kept their focus on what they wrote, how they wrote it, why they wrote it, how they responded to criticism from others, and other like relevant matters. I would say that C. Vann Woodward's Thinking Back is still the benchmark of historian memoirs. It is a thorough discussion of his career as an historian and the historiography of his writings. Recently I finished my latest effort, John Morton Blum's A Life With History. Blum writes about his own writings, but not as much as I would have liked. While he includes a few reviews of his work, he really does not engage his critics. Instead, Blum focuses much more of his attention on what it was like to be a historian in the Ivy League, with an entire chapter dedicated to his term as department chair. One thing struck me over and over again while reading A Life With History. His life as an Ivy League historian and mine as a community college adjunct could not be further apart and still remain in the same profession.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Thanks to a link on HNN's blog Cliopatra, I recently read Ron Rosenbaum's retrospective of William Shirer's classic The Rise and Fall of
the Third Reich
posted on Rosenbaum praises Shirer for writing about Nazism and the Second World War, particularly the Holocaust, at a time when many aging participants and some nations were content to sweep all the bad memories and guilt under Father Time's carpet. With great skill and solid historical method, Shirer lifted that carpet and shone the light. Although Rosebaum mentions the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Israel as playing a role in the book's popularity, I think something should be said of the 1960 presidential race towards contributing to a revival of interest in the war. Both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were war veterans and the former's exploits in PT-109 were the centerpiece of the Democratic candidate's personal narrative. I am one of those people who read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I read it in high school and it captivated me throughout. Although I did not become a European historian, I would say that this book vastly increased my interest in history. What I found especially interesting was how the author explained the rise of the Nazi's and the path to war. I cannot say how this work holds up in the current historiography, but few writers possessed Shirer's literary skill. It is a well organized work capable of being both concise and deep. Nevertheless, I continue to read about Hitler and the Nazis when I can. As Rosenbaum points out, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, is very critical of the German people for going along Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party's insane rampage across Europe. It is for this reason that I believe everyone should study the period, even if only to get some awareness of the forces at play. It is a worthy civic and historical question to ask why an educated people with a fresh democracy followed their leader into the most destructive war in history. It is one of the most important lessons we can learn from history.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Name of our Age, an Attempt at Cultural Criticism

An Osceola county, Florida man was recently arrested for impersonating a police office. Incidents of this odd crime are rising all over the country. It seems every other week there is such a story here in Colorado. In a bizarre twist on this theme a Fort Collins woman who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a police officer imposter, was, herself, fabricating the story. What is striking about the Florida man, however, is that he previously was arrested for impersonating a physicians assistant in a hospital emergency room. A serial impersonator putting the public at danger, how scary is that ?!? This strange bit of news actually helped me clarify something, however. I have been asking myself, what is a good name for our age? A couple of common names are the Internet Age, New Gilded Age and Age of Terror. Thomas Friedman has talked about how technology has made the world flat. All this technology constantly interrupts us, hence he calls this the Age of Interruption. Opting for my own name, I originally dubbed out times the Age of Snark. Snark, which often erroneously masquerades as wit, has become an overused rhetorical tool to the point where it is derailing our dialogue and thoughts. It generally involves ad hominem attacks designed to belittle one’s opponent. This in itself would not be noteworthy, except for the fact that it has invaded and poisoned every realm of public discussion. Let’s take politics for example. Television and radio personalities on each side (right and left) deploy snarky commentary to completely dismiss their opponents. Instead of an exchange of ideas, both sides have created straw men and women to attack. This reduction of all ideas to their most buffoonish and cartoonish element has just about killed any serious exchange on ideas. If the Democrats are all secular socialists and the Republicans all apologists for the 1%, as the reasoning goes, where can we find any common ground? One sure sign of snark is the f-bomb. It is indeed the only adjective available for the smart, snarky set in the blogosphere. I have to say that not all snark is bad, it certainly can be funny and genuine satire is a great tool for commentary. I cite Anthony Bourdain as a great practicioner of snark at its best. The problem is when it becomes a worldview. I wavered a little on this generalization after hearing the story of the Florida man. Snark just doesn't cover the police impersonators, fakers, pretenders, or, for that matter, the vulture economy, way overpaid professional athletes, super bowl hype, $200 concert tickets, Lady Gaga, Facebook stalking, students texting in class, salads at McDonald's, deposed Nigerian princes who want me to give them my bank account and meet them in Rome, computer viruses, North Korea, or many other trends in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Therefore, I re-name our age to include all of these trends. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Age of Bullshit!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chet Arthur on Film?

The other night I watched The Cattle King, a 1963 movie staring Robert Taylor. Most likely I would not have watched this film had the plot not been summarized as a rancher who sought the assistance of President Chester A. Arthur. The movie itself is very dated and chock full of Cold War analogies. All in all, I would say it urged a middling policy, one that stressed fighting when it was only absolutely necessary, but avoiding unnecessary and provocative violence. It is also dated in the way that everyone is killed with one clean, bloodless gun shot and falls right over like they were suffering from extreme narcolepsy. No blood and certainly no agony. How did Chester Arthur get there? The movie is set in the summer of 1883 when the 21st president traveled to Yellowstone National Park for some much needed rest. The celluloid Arthur was much shorter and thinner than the original. I imagine Arthur had the same gracious manners, but not sure if he would have had the same vigor. Like several other trips the president took during his term in office, the train carried a weary man on this vacation. Although Arthur is recognized as one of the least hard working of our nation's chief executives, he still suffered from a debilitating case of Bright's Disease, one that sapped his energy and ultimately took his life. He was always trying to hide the attacks of this illness. One one trip to Florida in spring 1883 a crippling attack of Bright's Disease was reported as food poisoning. Nevertheless, it was good to say a Gilded Age president make it to the big time!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Roosevelt in Africa

I am a big silent movie buff and couldn't resist looking up some of the movies Gregg Mitman discussed in the first chapter of his Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film. I really wanted to see "Silent Enemy," a movie about Native Americans in Canada released in 1930, but that doesn't seem to be on Youtube. I did find "Roosevelt in Africa," a documentary of sorts of former President Theodore Roosevelt's 1909 African hunt. According to Mitman British filmmaker Cherry Kearton happened to be in Africa on safari when he crossed Roosevelt's path in August 1909. Although there was potential for a great film, the result was a dud, a flop. A "short" of less than 20 minutes, "Roosevelt in Africa" lacked any semblance of drama. Despite the title Roosevelt makes only several appearances in the film, and none of them dramatic. Instead of the Rough Rider bringing down lions and the like, the movie goer gets to see him planting a tree! The African war dance was probably the most interesting item, although 100 years later it is hard to get a feel how much emotion an earlier viewer would have felt. I found a scene in which the Roosevelt party crosses a river to be the most telling. Here the white hunters, nattily dressed, hopped on the back of a native porter who carried him across the water. It says so much about the deplorable racial attitudes of the time as well as to the power of the colonial overlords.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Reel Nature

In Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film Gregg Mitman chronicles

this history of Hollywood portrayal of wild animals on film. What I really learned from this is that this battle happened very early on (1910s) and authenticity caved in to theatrics and staged events. Of course, nature can be boring and it was difficult in the 1910s and 1920s to get the big bulky cameras anywhere close enough to view wildlife unobstructed. By the 1930s conservationists willfully overlooked the managed or staged parts of the films on the proviso that it portrayed some version of reality (a lion attacking a wildebeest, is a lion attacking a wildebeest, even if it is on a game farm in California and not Africa) while equally contributing to a sympathetic view of animals. By the 1940s Fairfield Osborn of the New York Zoological Society started to create a nature film series to prompt conservation.

I would only add that several people predated Osborn by 30 years in their appreciation of film and photographic images as beneficial to conservation. In 1913 William Temple Hornaday and T. Gilbert Pearson (of the National Association of Audubon Societies) used a film provided by Edward McIlhenney to lobby Congressmen to pass a plumage ban during Woodrow Wilson's tariff reform. If McIlhenney's name looks familiar it is because he belonged to the family that produced tobacco sauce. Thus he was a well-to-do hunter in the gentleman-sportsman mould who wanted to put the market hunters out of business. He filmed some footage of dead herons and egrets, lost young who would soon die of starvation because their parents had been killed by hunters, and market hunters skinning their pray. The film produced positive results, although it had not been alone responsible for convincing Congress to enact the ban. Hornaday, likewise, used graphic images in his books, most notably Our Vanishing Wildlife (1913). Hornaday placed pictures of dead herons on their nest, and nestlings baking a slow starvation in the hot summer sun in his conservation book. He consciously sought to tug on the heart strings of his readers, challenge their cultural assumptions (i.e. motherhood), and affect the behavior he wanted. Images might not have been solely responsible, but they were an important part of his message. Although he used films rarely over the remainder of his career, he continued to present photographs through stereoptic slide presentations.

As far as Hollywood, Hornaday never warmed to film. He was too old-fashioned and politically conservative to do anything but reject the consumer cultural challenge to Victorian morality. There are some excellent letters from the mid-1920s in which he eggs the Federation of Women's Clubs to boycott and protest movies by Fatty Arbuckle. Although King Kong is some ways a critique of the Hollywoodization of wildlife, I think Hornaday would have pegged it the ultimate nature faking film if he had seen it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

5 worst Vice Presdidents

Historians love to rank the presidents from best (usually George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln) to worst (usually Richard Nixon and James Buchanan). Having done it myself it is a fun intellectual exercise. However, I doubt any one has ever made a list of Vice Presidents. Here is my list of the five worst Vice Presidents in United States History:

1. Aaron Burr (1801-1805). The election of 1800 still operated under the constitutional and arcane rules for selecting the president. The winner of the electoral college received the presidency and the runner-up became vice president. When this system was adopted under the constitution no one was prepared for the advent of political parties. In 1800 Burr ran as

Jefferson's VP, but lo and behold, they tied in electoral votes. Instead of stepping aside and acknowledging popular intentions, Burr challenged Jefferson through 36 ballots in the HOR. Jefferson won the election, but he never trusted Burr again. As well he should not have. Burr engaged in treason by hatching a plan to lead a revolt in the west. Only after General Wilkinson betrayed Burr was he arrested and later tried for betraying his country. He was aqcuitted on what today we would call a technicality.

2. Spiro Agnew (1969-1973). Agnew was Nixon's verbal hit man (not that he really needed one) and issued such colorful alliterative phrases as "the nattering nabobs of negativity", which he used

to describe the liberal media and the anti-war protestors. Agnew, however, was not Mr. Clean. In 1973 he resigned from the office of VP because he had been charged with accepting bribes as Baltimore County Executive, Baltimore Mayor, and VP.

3. John C. Calhoun (1825-1832). Calhoun of South Carolina started his political life as a nationalist who looked to the federal government to build roads and canals, and promote economic growth. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, however, changed Calhoun's mind and he feared the growing electoral power of the north with its free labor ideology (which was not exactly anti-slavery where slavery already existed but not in favor of expanding slaver territory). Calhoun

realized that the growing number of immigrants in the north would outweigh any benefit the south had in the HOR with the 3/5 clause. The battle had to be fought in the Senate to maintain enough slave states to block any effort to diminish slavery. For example one thing southerners feared was the prohibitive taxation of slaves (this is why Patrick Henry objected to the Constitution in the first place). So Calhoun became the arch states rights advocate to argue against any federal power because it might be used against slavery. To make his point, while VP, he persuaded South Carolina to nullify the Tariff of 1832. This led to a great crisis. Calhoun resigned his seat as VP to become US Senator from SC, but he had already sowed the seeds for disunion, crisis, and possibly even civil war. Fortunately, the crisis was averted by a compromise on the tariff, but Calhoun provided an example that would be followed in 1860.

4. Chester Arthur (1881). President James G. Garfield worked to bring the civil service under control and, like his predecessor Rutherford B. Hayes, he fought against Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Arthur sided with Conkling and conspired against his own president. When the a

deranged man shot Garfield (who died after two months of agony) he said something to the effect that now Chet Arthur will be president. Arthur recovered his composure when he became president but he never had the trust of the people. As VP it is hard to find anyone who worked so hard to undermine the president he was elected to serve.

5. Thomas Marshall (1913-1921). A former Indiana governor, Marshall is most famous for saying that "what this country needs is a good five cent cigar." In addition to this deep socio-economic analysis Marshall loved to play pranks on people when he was traveling the country on the railroads. When President Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke in 1919 Marshall essentially crawled under a rock. The country remained leaderless. No one was in charge as chaos reigned in

the Red Scare (the Palmer Raids, not the McCarthy Red Scare that would come 30 years later), and one of the most pressing issues in the history of American foreign policy (the US Senate vote on the Versailles Treaty which would have meant membership in the League of Nations). While I tend to doubt that American entry into the League of Nations would have prevented WWII, it sure wouldn't have hurt. The country never needed the VP to act more than it did in 1919 and Marshall failed to do anything meaningful.