Category Archives: History

The Bullies Pulpit

From Politico:

More than 100 years ago a Republican president worried that America wasn’t doing enough to protect its most treasured wild and sacred places from over-development, mining and drilling. So Congress passed and President Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, giving presidents the authority to preserve imperiled mountains, forests, cultural treasures and other public lands. Roosevelt condemned the “land grabbers” and “great special interests” who threatened the national lands he protected. “The rights of the public to the [nation’s] natural resources outweigh private rights and must be given its first consideration,” Roosevelt proclaimed. “Our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever.”

Today another Republican president is indicating he is ready to give in to the pressures of corporations and complicit state officials urging the administration to open these protected public lands to mining, drilling and other commercial exploitation. That would deprive future generations of Americans of irreplaceable treasures, both in the beauty of the landscapes that would be scarred and the birds and other wildlife that depend on those protected places for survival.

Whether it’s a good idea for Trump to revoke the protected status of lands designated as national moments is up for debate. (I’m against it.) But what interested me about this op-ed was its comparison of Trump to Theodore Roosevelt. It was negative in this case, but in Robert Merry’s forthcoming biography of William McKinley, Roosevelt comes across as much more Trump-like than TR fans like me would care to acknowledge.

TR is one of my certified History Crushes™. Anyone who reads Edmund Morris’ trilogy on the man’s brief but crowded life can’t help but admire him in some way. But there’s no getting around the fact that Roosevelt was an attention whore. Many others have noted the similarities between the two New Yorkers, but here’s Merry:

The biggest contributor to McKinley’s standing in history was Theodore Roosevelt, whose leadership style could not have been further removed from that of McKinley. Impetuous, voluble, amusing, grandiose, prone to marking his territory with political defiance, Roosevelt stirred the imagination of the American people as McKinley never had. To [McKinley]’s solidity, safety, and caution, the Rough Rider offered a mind that moved “by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” as William Allen White described it. He took the American people on a political roller-coaster ride, and to many it was thrilling.

But the New Yorker was never one to share the credit with others. His theatrical self-importance led even his children to acknowledge that he wanted to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” It wasn’t surprising that soon he was denigrating the man whose presidency he had extolled through thousands of miles of political campaigning on his way to national power.

“A mind that moved by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” “theatrical self-importance,” “prone to marking his territory with political defiance”—a little eerie, right? And the public denigration of his predecessor (and successor—poor Taft) certainly aligns with Trump’s modus operandi.

The bull moose-sized caveat here is that Roosevelt was far more qualified for the job and did soooo much more—and so much more good—in his 60 years of life than Trump has (including actually wanting to be president). Ditto that other Trumpish president, Andrew Jackson. To put Trump in their league simply because they were all blustery fellows would be an insult to the presidency and even to other blustery fellows who are otherwise good dudes.

Nevertheless, it’s good to remember that historical analogies are rarely clean, that we can’t disregard unpleasant characteristics of beloved historical figures out of convenience, and that Roosevelt single-handedly chased down and captured three outlaws in Dakota who stole his riverboat and escorted them back overland in a forty-hour marathon with no sleep while finishing a Tolstoy novel.

America in Five Cities

It dawned on me recently how the names and locations of the top 5 most populous cities in the United States tell the story of the nation:

New York, in the east, with the English name, representing the history of our relationship with England.

Los Angeles, in the west, with the Spanish name representing the history of our relationship with Mexico.

Chicago, in the north, from the Potawatomi for “wild garlic place”, representing the history of Native Americans.

Houston, in the south, named after Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, representing the history of the Wild West.

Philadelphia, in the east, Greek for “brotherly love”, representing the ancient origins within the founding of the nation.

This has a nice round feel to it. That is, until Phoenix comes for that fifth spot

Ötzi-quel

This ongoing saga of Ötzi the Iceman fascinates me. I first learned of him from Radiolab a few years ago, but turns out we keep learning more about this mythic Italian mummy:

The more scientists learn, the more recognizable the Iceman becomes. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall (about average height for his time), weighed 110 pounds, had brown eyes and shoulder-length, dark brown hair, and a size 7½ foot. He was about 45, give or take six years, respectably old for the late Neolithic age — but still in his prime.

Still kinda blown away science can figure this stuff out:

From examining traces of pollen in his digestive tract, scientists were able to place the date of Ötzi’s death at sometime in late spring or early summer. In his last two days, they found, he consumed three distinct meals and walked from an elevation of about 6,500 feet, down to the valley floor and then up into the mountains again, where he was found at the crime site, 10,500 feet up.

More to come, I hope.

Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

In addition to being one of two people to serve in the U.S. House and Senate, a President’s Cabinet, and the U.S. Supreme Court, L.Q.C. Lamar was one of eight senators featured in Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, which is one of those books you’ve heard about but never read.

A lawyer from Georgia, Lamar bounced between Georgia and Mississippi to practice law and teach before getting elected to the Georgia State House of Representatives in 1853, and then three years later in Mississippi to the U.S. House. (Pick a state, man!) When secession time came around, he resigned from the House and joined the Mississippi Secession Convention, drafting the state’s Ordinance of Secession and mustering a regiment. When bad health kept him away from the battlefield, Jefferson Davis appointed him Confederate minister to Russia and special envoy to England and France until the end of the war.

Once former Confederates were allowed to hold office again, Lamar came right back, serving in the U.S. House (again) and then Senate, where he earned his spot in Profiles in Courage by eulogizing Charles Sumner instead of caning him again and voting against the “free silver” movement. Grover Cleveland appointed him Secretary of the Interior in 1885, then two years later nominated him for the U.S. Supreme Court, where he died five years later.

Sources: 1, 2

Tom, John, Abby & George

The fourth episode of the John Adams miniseries (“Reunion”) contains two of the best scenes in the show. The first is John hanging with Abigail and Thomas Jefferson in Paris. It’s fun to consider now how these titans of American history would have interacted in their time, before they achieved titan status:

The second is when John Adams meets with King George III as the first American ambassador to Great Britain. Giamatti perfectly portrays the range of emotions Adams must have felt serving this role: pride above all, I imagine, in every sense of the word. To represent his new country in such a prestigious role also carried with it the custom of bowing deeply not once, not twice, but thrice, to the monarch he had so vociferously criticized:

Still delighted HBO chose to dedicate a series to the Founding Father who would not land on Mount Rushmore but had an undeniable influence in making it possible one day.

Refer Madness: A Name that Named Names

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A patron who calls regularly — usually looking for the value of an old book or baseball card — had a pretty direct question for me today: “Was Lee J. Cobb blacklisted?”

Nope, but just barely.

Born Leo Jacoby (get it? Lee J. Cobb[y]?), Cobb most iconically featured in 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1957’s 12 Angry Men, two highly regarded and politically aware films that comment on the Red Scare paranoia of 1950s America. According to Victor Navasky’s 1980 book Naming Names, Cobb was accused of being a Communist in a 1951 HUAC testimony by actor and actual former Communist Larry Parks. Called to testify but refusing to do so for two years, Cobb finally relented in 1953 and named twenty former Community Party members.

Cobb’s reason for doing so, as told in Naming Names, is fascinating and blunt:

When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit—being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That’s minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. The HUAC did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn’t borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it’s worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn’t worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I’d do it. I had to be employable again.

And he was, the next year, in On the Waterfront, written by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other Hollywood figures who testified to HUAC.

Sources: 1

Herbert Hoover in the White House

By nature of their office presidents generally believe the press corps is working against them, but there is little question that in Washington in 1932 reporters and editors had a lively antipathy for Hoover, a disdain unmatched by any successor until the next Quaker to occupy the White House—Richard Nixon, some forty years later.

—From Charles Rappleye’s (excellent) forthcoming Herbert Hoover in the White House (which I’m reviewing for publication): a delicious irony that our nation’s only two ostensibly Quaker presidents were active players in a mutually antagonistic relationship with the press.

Guns Kill People

It is right and good that the New York Times chose, for the first time since 1920, to publish an editorial on Page 1. “End the Gun Epidemic in America” captures the zeitgeist well, at least that of reasonable human beings without a vested, monied interest in seeing the NRA-sponsored carnage continue.

“It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment,” the editorial reads. “No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.” Indeed, it seems the only right in the Constitution that has found itself immune from debate is that of the Second Amendment. The beneficiary of a modern-day gag rule, wherein even researching the causes and effects of gun violence is outlawed, our supposed right as American citizens to own unlimited military-grade weaponry is considered as self-evident and God-blessed as our country itself.

We need a John Quincy Adams. An incorrigible ramrod of righteousness with nothing to lose. Smart enough to use the system to the cause’s favor and intractably annoying to its enemies. We also need the truth to be spoken through the research—research!—that we’ve consistently denied because denial is bliss. When enough people finally open their eyes to this culture of death we’ve protected, the delusional, cowardly mania for guns will compare in the future’s unfavorable eyes to the same delusional, cowardly mania for slavery that gripped this country for far too long.

Little Big City

Imagine my surprise when fellow high-school classmate and garage band musician Aaron Shekey was mentioned in John McPhee’s latest essay for The New Yorker. McPhee quoted Shekey’s own essay from a few years ago called “It’s What You Leave Out”, about the curious case of the Madison skyline. “One of the more interesting things about the layout of my hometown,” Shekey wrote, “is a simple rule the city planners made around 1915: No building can be taller than the base of the pillars surrounding the capital building’s dome—that’s only 190 feet.”

This mandate, now 100 years old, is still in place, leaving us with a skyline a Madisonian who was around at the time of the edict’s passing would still recognize.

It’s a view I’ve grown used to, even bored of, having lived there until I left for college. But when I compare it to other lakeside skylines I’ve come to know, like Chicago’s, where even with the Sears Tower there is no clear focal point or guiding architectural principle except how high the buildings can reach and how many condos they can cram into the air space, I see the value of the Madison experiment—the “century’s worth of restraint” as Shekey called it. You could almost call it a civic humility, thought that’s not quite right. Not when the capitol building, the literal civic center, is the legally mandated center of attention.

madison-map

A bird’s-eye view tells the same story: the Capitol sits in the middle of the downtown square, in the middle of the isthmus that splits the lakes Monona and Mendota. You could loop around the Capitol all day on the one-way streets that revolve around it. And that’s OK, because it’s a beauty. Shekey again: “If you let your eye wander along the horizon, you’d see it—The capital. A tiny white light shining above everything else. You can see it for miles. Even from there it was breathtaking—a skyline defined by what it isn’t.”

I suppose it makes sense the center of government should be the nucleus of the city, the standard by which everything else is judged and modeled. But one person’s civic restraint is another’s stunted growth. Chicago is a storied architectural wonder (I’d highly recommend taking an architectural boat tour if you can), but that wouldn’t have been so if after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the city planners had imposed a vertical quota on the Loop.

When I tell people I’m from Madison, they often ask what it’s like and how I liked it. If they’re familiar with the area I tell them I’m actually, like Shekey, from the western suburb of Middleton, though I was born and raised in Madison through elementary school. But if they’re unfamiliar, I say it’s a typical college town: liberal (in Madison’s case very much so), lots of bars and bikes, and has lots to see around it if you know where to look.

I also like to call it a “little big city.” Like any big city it has a bustling downtown with distinct neighborhoods and adjacent suburbs, but it’s no Chicago or even Milwaukee. Driving on University Avenue through the Isthmus you can get from the westside of town to the east in 15 minutes if the stoplights and traffic are friendly. Besides the capitol building itself, the biggest things about Madison are the lakes it’s squeezed between—and the world renowned farmer’s market during the summer.

I’m sure Madison has “little big” friends in Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg, Missouri’s Jefferson City, Washington’s Olympia, and other cities: state capitals that aren’t their state’s biggest city. They don’t have the skyscrapers of Philadelphia, Kansas City, or Seattle, but they have beautiful capitol buildings visitors like me would love to see. This is even true in Washington D.C., where the U.S. Capitol, larger but almost identical to Madison’s pillared dome, sits atop a hill overlooking the National Mall and the much smaller yet more iconic White House.

It takes high regard for the built beauty of one’s own place to preserve the arrangement Madison has over a century of constant change. Perhaps one day Madison’s glass (or ice) ceiling will shatter and the capitol dome will shrink into a much taller skyline than it’s accustomed to. But until then it will remain a little big city with a little big horizon that ain’t bad to come home to.

(Photo by Steve Wetzel)