Sunday morning coffee

I have been trying this weekend to make some headway on a project that hopefully will come to fruition sometime this summer. Though there is still much to do, the writing is coming along. My goal is to finish the draft before Memorial Day. We’ll see if that comes to pass. One of the figures in the project is John Jay, who died on May 17, 1829. Jay was a governor, acting Secretary of State, and Supreme Court Chief Justice among other things. His grandson is a figure in Incorporating New York, my as-yet unpublished manuscript about Civil War Era New York City. It is often lost on us how little time passed between the Revolutionary and Civil War generations. I had hope to visit the Jay Heritage Center in Rye this summer but that is looking less likely given the current pandemic situation. This coming September there is a conference related to Jay at Columbia University to commemorate the completion of the seven-volume Jay Papers project. Hopefully that will still come to pass, if only in an online virtual context.


Richard Gilder, 1932-2020

New-York Historical Society

I read with great interest this morning James G. Basker’s remembrance of investor and philanthropist Richard Gilder, who died on May 12 at the age of 87. Those with an interest in the study of the past might know that Mr. Gilder was one half of the partnership that founded The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The work they and their teams have done over these past several decades has been crucial to the dissemination and understanding of American history. One of their wisest moves has always been to focus on primary sources. Their emphasis has always been to let the people of the past speak to us in their own words via their speeches, letters, public broadsides, and recordings. At the institution where I myself work, we have applied for and won grants provided by the Gilder Lehrman Institute which have allowed us to discuss America and its role in the world and share it with the public. The ultimate investment is in people and knowledge.

Important though all that work was–and continues to be–Gilder accomplished more than that. He was instrumental to the renovation of Central Park in the hard years of the 1970s, and the revival of the New-York Historical Society among many other things. Getting older provides perspective. I have been a New Yorker long enough now to have lived through several eras and seen certain things change and change again, from the height of irrational exuberance to our current fraught moment. Has it been more than a decade and a half the Hamilton exhibit came to the Upper West Side? That was years before the Broadway play. The N-YHS slavery and Lincoln exhibits followed soon thereafter. I remember taking my late father-in-law to see the latter well over a decade ago. He and my father are now gone but they live on in the lessons I learned from both of them, combined with the places we visited and things we saw along the way.

(image/Ajay Suresh)

Mother’s Day Morning Coffee

I hope everyone is having a relaxing Mather’s Day Sunday. Alas there is not much recourse but to shelter in place but the true spirit of the holiday is to honor or remember those who do or did so much for us, usually with such little notice or credit. If we have to do that while sheltering in place, it is all well and good. Yesterday I resumed a project that had hit a bit of a wall for a week or so. Every day out of the saddle makes it that much tougher to pick up again. It is just that easy to not do it. I wrote 400 words yesterday and am going for 450 today. It is amazing how if you sit down a write a few lines the process takes over. I have a friend to whom I text at the end of the day with my progress on these things. Yesterday he reminded me of Eleanor Roosevelt’s mantra that the way to begin is to begin.

Said friend lives in the Carolina area and yesterday sent me the images your see here from King’s Mountain. He has been visiting a great deal this spring and has told me that, like Green-Wood Cemetery here in Brooklyn, visitation is way up during the pandemic. That said, there is still enough space to maintain social distancing. One of our goals it take a week-long or so road trip ┬áto hit some of the Revolutionary and Civil War sites in Georgia and the Carolinas, which I have never seen. It seems that especially with the War of Independence the southern theater is often overlooked and misunderstood.

Happy Mother’s Day, all.

Remembering V-E Day 75 years on

Camera crews record President Harry S. Truman announcing the surrender of Germany, May 8, 1945

I spent a good portion of the evening working reference on my library’s online reference service, answering questions not just from our own students but from those around the world within the consortium to which we belong. I rarely break through the fourth wall but almost always play it completely straight, unless something humorous happens or there is some other reason to break character so to speak. You always know where the person is because they log on from their institution’s website. Today around 5:00 pm I clicked on a query from a school in London. Often the patrons on the other end do not realize they are getting the 24/7 reference service and figure, if they think about it at all, that they have gotten someone from their home site. This happened with the patron from London because they apologized for bothering me on a bank holiday. I broke through the wall immediately and told them that not only were they not bothering me but that it was not even a bank holiday here in Brooklyn, New York. I had understood immediately that their bank holiday remark was in reference to today being V-E Day.

Usually when I field questions from across the pond–and there are always a fair number of them–I like to think they’re sitting in a pub having a pint while doing their schoolwork. It was 5:00 pm here, and so would have been after at least 10:00 London time. Yes, it was a Friday but I doubt given the upside-down nature of our current moment that they were pub crawling, and no I did not ask. While looking into their reference need the two of us had a fair back-and-forth on the V-E Day commemoration, which despite being the 75th such occasion was rather subdued given the pandemic. They patron mentioned a few virtual events being held online for social distancing purposes. There were few, if any, in-person events.

This patron was one of three people (the others not being from virtual reference but people emailing and texting) who mentioned today’s Victory in Europe anniversary. It has been cold and rainy all day here in the Big Apple; anniversaries such as this are not really there for celebration but reflection, and the weather has suited the occasion. Given everything going on in our world today this year’s V-E Day has been that much more poignant. No one knows the future–just ask anyone who remains today who was there in the spring of 1945–but it seems that seventy-five years after the surrender of Germany the world is entering a new era.

(image/Truman Library Institute)


Fending Chaos: the Early Years of Rufus King

Rufus King Manor library & study, Jamaica Queens

The Journal of the American Revolution has posted my article about Rufus King. Of all the things I have written (so far), this may be the most rewarding. King is such an important figure and his story is so important to tell. This article ends in 1789, the year of the First Congress and Washington’s inaugural at Federal Hall. I am working on a part two right now that will bring King up through 1805, the year after his unsuccessful presidential bid and purchase of his Jamaica Queens home. The article is still very much in the early stages, but if all goes as planned it will get released sometime in early summer.

Now seems an opportune time to say publicly that I’ve decided my next book project will be about the King family in America. I had the Ah-ha moment this past Saturday and spent a good portion of this past weekend preparing some timelines. I intend to cover six generations from the early 1700s to the 1930s. Rufus King’s son, John Alsop King, plays a role in my yet-to-be-published manuscript “Incorporating New York” about Civil War Era New York City, so the topic is less of a digression than it might seem at first glance. In many ways, Rufus King’s sons and grandsons, and the generations of which they were a part, had to deal with the issues that the founders had put off, slavery, expansion, and other contentious things in particular. Rufus King himself returned to the Senate in the 1810s and dealt with such hot-button issues as the War of 1812 and Missouri Compromise. It is a story worth telling.

(image/CaptJayRuffins via Wikimedia Commons)

Fiorello La Guardia’s First World War

They have my article up and running about Fiorello La Guardia’s involvement in the World War I over at Roads to the Great War. In 1917-18 he flew planes and served as second-in-command of an air base in Foggia, Italy, the place of his father’s birth. At the same time he was serving in the U.S. Congress. I had wanted to write this one for a long time but other projects kept pushing it to the back burner. I find La Guardia’s early life to be fascinating. We so associate him with ethnic New York, which makes sense being that he was born in New York City to immigrant parents. It was his experience in the Old West, however, that did so much to shape who he became. His year in Italy did much the same. This piece was a lot of fun to write. Enjoy.

(image/Library of Congress)

Patriot’s Day 2020

Yesterday was the 245th anniversary of the firing at Lexington and Concord. The stamp above is a commemorative, one of a three-stamp set, from the 1925 sesquicentennial. As I understand it, one of the reasons people associate Massachusetts and Virginia–but not New York–so closely with the Revolutionary War is that in the 1920s the former two states out-hustled the latter in the heritage tourism game. It is something I intend to delve into more in these next few years during the 250th, which we are already in right now. I think the role the sesquicentennial in the 1920s played in our understanding of the Revolutionary War is under appreciated.

Today is Patriot’s Day in New England. The Red Sox would have played a morning game in Fenway concurrent with the running of the Boston Marathon. Even though I have not lived in New England for more than 40 years I still have many relatives there and feel a strong connection to Patriot’s Day. My relatives usually watch the marathon from a small town outside Boston itself. Also, I ran cross-country in high school and remember Bill Rodgers and the runners of that period so vividly. Hopefully they will get the race in this coming September as they plan.