One of the most rewarding things about volunteering with the Park Service, in addition to collaborating alongside the amazing rangers who work there, is meeting the public. Everyone visits a site bringing their own expectations to what they hope to get out of it. For some that means using the bathroom and leaving without saying a word, which is fine. Others however visit on some sort of mission or purpose. We had a few of these yesterday at Federal Hall. Here are two:
Two fellows came in from rural Pennsylvania in mid-afternoon. I showed them around and then got into a longer conversation with one of them. He told me had never thought much about history until earlier this year, when his sister discovered a trove of letters written by an ancestor who had served in New Jersey regiment during the Civil War. One thing led to another and after some digging he discovered that his family roots date back in the New World to the 1640s. This knowledge in turn led him to studying not just the Civil War but the Early American period. Thus he and his friend were making the rounds of various historic sites. They were on their way to Fraunces Tavern after Federal Hall.
He told me his son lives in Brooklyn and therefore he comes to the city frequently. So I quickly jotted the names of further historic sites in various boroughs he might try to see when time permits. I will never know if he follows through. Hopefully he will.
Later a man came in with his son and we too got into a conversation. As it turned out for decades, going back to the 1980s, he was a White House correspondent for a major newspaper syndicate. We got to talking about the evolution of the newspaper industry, which in turn led to a discussion of covering various historical events. I mentioned George H.W. Bush having been at Federal Hall in April 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Washington’s First Inaugural. The man mentioned that the event had been part of a larger project that took place over that year starting in January called “From George to George.” The retired journalist had an extraordinary amount of institutional memory.
Stories like the above are just two examples of the things one only gets from being at the place itself. People, at least some of them, come in reflective and eager to share what led them to come and experience the thing for themselves.
In the manuscript of Incorporating New York, the book I have been writing about Civil War Era New York, I mention the July 26, 1788 New York State ratification of the U.S. Consecution. Isaac Roosevelt joined other Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and others in voting for the Constitution’s passage. Until this past Friday when at the New-York Historical Society, I had not heard of the Grand Procession that took place in New York City on July 23, 1788 in support of the Constitution. New York’s was not the first such procession; other locales had held them previously, some of them large, such as Philadelphia’s on July 4. New York had intended to hold its procession weeks earlier but the thing kept getting pushed back. By the time the procession rolled along on July 23 ten states had ratified the Constitution, one more than need to make it legally binding. Still, there was the significant issue of whether or not New York would join the republic.
The image we see here is from a mid-nineteenth century history book and is not entirely accurate, though they did pull a frigate called the Hamilton through the streets during the procession. We see it here passing through Bowling Green. On the left one can see the fence that is still there. On the left is Fort George, which was torn down in 1790. Cass Gilbert’s 1907 Hamilton Custom House, now home to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, is there today. What I do not understand is the caption where it mentions the president and legislators watching from atop the fort. The First Congress would not sit, and Washington would not be sworn in as president, until April 1789. Perhaps these are the re-enactors of their time? Or maybe a projection to show what could be if New York ratifies? I do not know.
New York ratification of the Constitution was no sure thing. That is why things were dragging out for several weeks at the meeting in Poughkeepsie. This is an extraordinary moment in both New York and American history
(engraving/History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, Volume II via NYPL)
I hope everyone’s summer is off to a good start. Happy Father’s Day to all dads out there. Posting will pick up here now that the summer days have settled into something of a pattern. With the academic year over I again began volunteering with the Park Service. This summer I am at Federal Hall. Though I never planned it this way, it has been something of a run through the various New York City sites. There is actually a great deal of overlap in the histories of these places, and Federal Hall has a unique story and provenance spanning many centuries. The site itself was placed under the auspices of the Park Service by the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, who did so eighty years ago in 1939 around the same time they quashed Robert Moses’s Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. The Early American Period is an era about which I know fairly little and I have thus spent much of my time since submitting grades Memorial Day Weekend engrossing myself in the literature. I find it comforting on a number of levels, not least as I try to understand our own troubling and disturbing times. The Founding Father have so much to teach us.
The site upon which stood Federal Hall has been many things over time. It was where the First Congress met and where George Washington was sworn in as our first president. The original building was torn down in 1812 and a customs house built on the choice Wall Street property in 1842. During the Civil War it became the New York Sub-Treasury, and would remain so until just after the First World War. A great deal of all this also ties in to my book manuscript, which really excites me. I am already up-and-running, writing some bits for the social media and giving tours. I’m looking forward to telling more stories and jumping in.
(image/Robert Shaw sketch via NYPL)
Yesterday in class we spoke about the opening of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, which opened on April 29, 1939. Robert Moses, Fiorello La Guardia and their associates made certain that the bridge opened in time for the World’s Fair, which began the following day. One of the first to cross the span from the Bronx into Queens was Franklin Roosevelt, who left Hyde Park early that morning eighty years ago today and crossed the Whitestone in his motorcade on the way to speak to 40,000 gathered in Flushing Meadows. The 1939 New York Fair opened when it did to commemorate George Washington’s first inaugural. In a good reminder that the Early American period is not that long ago, and that the ideals for which it stands are still quite fragile, when Roosevelt spoke of his presidential predecessor it was only the sesquicentennial of Washington’s presidency. We are still a work in progress.
Why should I go on when Roosevelt himself put it so well himself? In part he told the gathered eighty years ago today:
“Fortunately, there have been preserved for us many generations later, accounts of his taking of the oath of office on April thirtieth on the balcony of the old Federal Hall. In a scene of republican simplicity and surrounded by the great men of the time, most of whom had served with him in the cause of independence through the Revolution, the oath was administered to him by the Chancellor of the State of New York, Robert R. Livingston. And so we, in New York, have a very personal connection with that thirtieth of April, one hundred and fifty years ago.”
I don’t have much to add but wanted to share this photograph I discovered this morning while preparing for next week’s classes. Here we see a young woman standing before the Trylon and Perisphere after the remainder of their scaffolding was taken off on 22 February 1939. The World’s Fair coincided with the sesquicentennial of George Washington’s First Inaugural; President Roosevelt opened the Fair on 30 April, 150 years to the day after Washington took the oath of office in Lower Manhattan at Federal Hall. In winter 1939 Robert Moses’s crews were working long shifts to prepare the fair grounds in Queens in time to ensure the event opened on time come spring. Presumably they took the scaffolding off on Washington’s Birthday intentionally to promote the upcoming fair and emphasize the tie-in to the first president.
I would love to have been able to visit Mount Vernon today but alas that was not feasible. I imagine they are having events today, and again this coming Friday on President Washington’s actual birthday. Inspired by yesterday’s post about Al Smith and his annual viewing of the retired firemen of Brooklyn, I’m leaving in a bit to visit the New York City Fire Museum in SOHO. Fire houses played a role in Washington and 4th of July observances from the time of the Early Republic until just a few recent decades ago. I’m up and out early because when I return I have to prepare for the week ahead, not least the laundry.
Enjoy your Presidents Day, everyone.
(image/Early twentieth century Edward Penfield poster via Library of Congress)
I was reading a good-natured online debate the other between a couple of people arguing the merits and demerits of American holidays. One of the running threads–indeed, the instigation of the discussion–was the idea of President’s Day itself. Some were averring that the holiday we are observing this weekend is now a second-tier observance, which is tough to argue against. It was not always the case however. President’s Day began as George Washington’s Birthday, and is still legally considered as such in many of the fifty states. Up until around the Second World War however Washington’s Birthday was still considered one of our most prestigious holidays, ranking below Christmas and Easter and on par with the 4th of July. It makes sense that Americans would have two secular holidays–one in winter and the other in summer–of such consequence. From the early days of the Republic through the mass immigration of the early twentieth century these holidays gave Americans a shared narrative. The 4th of July is still part of that narrative, but Washington’s Birthday–or even the more general “President’s Day–not so much.
Here above we see a moment during which Washington’s Birthday was still very much part of our cultural fabric. In 1928 Governor Alfred E. Smith visited Brooklyn to review the organization of retired Kings County firemen. From the steps of Borough Hall he watched the procession of men, some in their 90s, as they hailed the man everyone knew would run for the presidency that coming November. The Eagle, whose offices were adjacent to Borough Hall, noted that “Only the Roman candles and fireworks of the old political campaigning [were] missing.” It was not just Brooklynites; firemen had come from throughout Long Island, Manhattan, and as far away as Philadelphia and Delaware to see and hear Smith.
The governor had been coming to this event throughout the 1920s. He had come down from Albany for a few days to appear at several events; after speaking to and lunching with the retired firemen in Brooklyn, Smith returned to Manhattan and dined at the Brace Memorial Newsboys’ House on William Street. Lodging houses like the one Smith spoke at on Washington’s Birthday 1928 dated back to the days when Charles Loring Brace and Theodore Roosevelt Sr. created them prior to the Civil War. There with Smith at the lodging house was U.S. Congressman Fiorello La Guardia. Smith’s message to the 1,200 assembled hardscrabble lads was to accept that life is difficult even under the best of circumstances. The governor and presidential aspirant understood difficulty, having been born a slum kid on the Lower East Side and toiling in the Fulton Fish Market before becoming a Tammany man and starting his rise.
(images/Brooklyn Daily Eagle)
Two inspirations for visiting Mount Vernon last week was a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of the American Revolution last June and a chance viewing of the above painting at the National Portrait Gallery in August. Here we see President James Buchanan and the Prince of Wales, who forty-one years after the events depicted here would become King Edward VII, visiting Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon in October 1860. Buchanan knew the royals well, having served as Ambassador of the United States to the Court of St. James’s from 1849-53 when the prince was a very young lad. The events depicted in the painting took place in early October 1860, one month before the presidential election won by Abraham Lincoln.
The Prince of Wales was in the United States on a goodwill tour. Everyone put of a brave face but relations between the countries were strained. This all took place within living memory of the War of 1812 and even, for some very aged persons, the Revolutionary War itself, and tension in the Anglo-American relationship were evident. This was the tour during which Michael Corcoran of New York’s 69th Infantry Regiment refused to march his men before the Prince of Wales in review. The controversy in New York took place a week after this trip to Washington. The British entourage was unimpressed with the still-young nation’s capital. The unfinished crown atop the Capitol Building, stump of the unfinished Washington Monument, and shabby condition of even Mount Vernon itself–onetime home and final resting place of the colonial general and father of the country–reflected poorly on American ingenuity and even the viability of republican government itself. Given the hysteria and fever pitch surrounding the four-man presidential race then underway, once cannot really blame them for thinking such things.
(image/Visit of the Prince of Wales, President Buchanan, and Dignitaries to the Tomb of Washington at Mount Vernon, October 1860, painter Thomas P. Rossiter; Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)
I hope everyone’s 2019 is off to a good start. My gosh, I have not posted since New Year’s Day almost three full weeks ago, the longest stretch with no posts since I began the blog eight years ago. I went on holiday January 3 and have spent the time since my return preparing for the upcoming semester. My co-teacher and I have been discussing the syllabus, narrowing down the reading list, and such. It is always exciting and a little nerve-inducing getting ready for a new term. I’m fortunate to have such a good colleague.
I am here in the DC area for the weekend. Yesterday the Hayfoot and I visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The last time I was there was more than forty-five years ago. I wanted to visit before starting the James Thomas Flexner four-volume biography, which I intend to begin when I get back to New York City. I am supposed to give a talk related to Washington at a particular historic site in Manhattan on Presidents Day, but with the government shutdown still ongoing we will see what happens.
A cold January day is an opportune time to visit. They estimated at the information desk that they would receive 500 visitors for the day, as opposed to the 6000-8000 daily tourists they receive on a typical spring or summer day. When we arrived at the mansion itself, we walked right up as the tour was commencing. No lines. Alas photography was not permitted in the house, but my favorite item was the Bastille Key given to George Washington by the Marquise de Lafayette. I made a point to the tour guide that Lafayette gave the key to Washington with the idea that future generations might see and appreciate its significance–and that that was precisely what our little group was doing at that moment. She had clearly never thought of it like that before and lit up when I said it.
A little later in the tour we were in the outdoor kitchen when a visitor asked the guide to explain again why officials at the site refer to Mount Vernon’s enslaved community not as “slaves” but as “enslaved persons.” The reason, the guide explained quite well, is to affirm the humanity of this community and tell their stories with fuller nuance. A few in the group still weren’t getting it. As it happened this came at the end of the tour, after which we all exited into the courtyard area. We joined an informal discussion at this point in which our group was still discussing the terminology about the enslaved community. As she so often does, the Hayfoot stepped up and with clarity and compassion added a few salient points that built on what the guide had said. A few eventually “got it,” with or without necessarily agreeing with the premises being expressed. A smaller number never did get it. If they went home to ponder it, or put it out of their minds entirely right then and there, I will never know.
All in all it was a great day. There was so much to see and so little time to take it all in that we became Mount Vernon members. So come spring we’ll be there again, only this time with the great masses taking in the gardens and all else there is to see and learn at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.