Afternoon scene, Green-Wood Cemetery

Brooklyn Green-Wood Cemetery, April 2020

One thing I am trying to do during this period of sheltering in place is not work too much, if at all, on Sundays. This can be difficult because I usually have a few projects in various stages of development at any given time. Typically on Sundays I put in at least a few hours researching or writing in my home office, or visiting some library or archive. Nonetheless, with no physical differentiation between home and work life–and no way to visit any restaurants, baseball games, or cultural institutions–one must buffer in some way the various roles in one’s life. One place that has thankfully remained open during the pandemic has been Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. I have been visiting the cemetery for more than twenty years now, and while the 478-acre green space always has more visitors this time of year there are many more people in the park in our current moment. I mean a ton. This is a good thing to see. Still it is not so crowded that one cannot socially distance and remain safe.

I was talking to a neighbor the other day, who told me that a few weeks ago had been his first trip to Green-Wood. I explained the nature and development of garden cemeteries, which he was surprised to learn. There is a saying that graveyards are for the dead and cemeteries for the living. This has never been truer than in our current moment. People have been visiting Green-Wood Cemetery for 180+ years now through civil war and other public crises, but the place has hardly been more relevant than right now. I, and many thousands of other Brooklynites, have been thankful to have this place to visit in these times.

History Matters (…and so does coffee!)

Coffee-House Slip, (Foot of Wall Street), drawn & engraved by H. Fossette

I was telling someone last night that yesterday was the first time since beginning to shelter in place last month that I felt hemmed in and claustrophobic. Apparently I was not the only one feeling like such; my friend replied that he left the house and went for a drive to clear his head. Las week another friend, an intelligent and thoughtful high school history educator who recently returned to school for another graduate degree, asked me if I am keeping any type of journal or diary during the health pandemic. I actually do keep a journal and while I cover events of the day and the like, it is more for where I am on certain projects at home, work, and in my writing. Of course the outside world touches on all those things, so it is a sort of chronicle of the time.

I was thinking about all these things when I was getting ready for bed last night after watching last week’s premier episode of the National Council for History Education (NCHE) series with Yale history professor Joanne Freeman History Matters (…and so does coffee!). It is a weekly online series in which Professor Freeman shares a primary resource and explains how it is relevant to today’s times. History is always relevant to current times, which the wise among us understand. Last week’s document was a letter written by Alexander Hamilton in late September 1787 a week or so after the September 17 ratification of the Constitution. Ratification at the Convention was hardly the end of the story; from there the document went to the Confederation Congress, and from there to the states for a vote. Dr. Freeman read Hamilton’s letter, in which he cast doubt that the Constitution would come to pass enough states. The title of the episode was “Contingency Matters.” Freeman was trying to show that nothing is ever a done deal or set in stone. Far from being a sure thing, the Constitution hung tenuously in the balance. That was why Hamilton, Jay, and Madison soon wrote The Federalist Papers, each article of which was printed in newspapers and other venues to be read aloud in coffeeshops and other public spaces to sway public opinion.

Closely related to contingency is agency. It is important in these trying times, with the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and seemingly failing leadership on certain levels, to realize that one has more more agency than one might believe. Nothing is set in stone and circumstances change, often when we least expect. That is where contingency and our own agency come in. This was one of the points of the episode.

Check out History Matters at the NCHE website. Each broadcast appears live Thursdays from 10:00-10:30 am Eastern time, but is also available for viewing afterward.

(image/Views in New-York and its Environs, from Accurate, Characteristic & Picturesque Drawings, Taken on the Spot, Expressly for this Work; New York: Peabody & Co., 1831.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1882-1945

I have been trying not to do too much today, which is not something that comes easily to me, but I would be remiss if I did not note that today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Franklin Roosevelt. He died at the health spa he founded for the treatment of infantile paralysis in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945. I am old enough to remember a time when there were still plenty of Americans–your teacher, the mailman, your Aunt Shirley, whoever–who regarded Franklin Roosevelt as essentially a family member. While I do believe it is unhealthy and unwise to venerate any public official to such a degree, it is not difficult to see why so many would have thought in such manner given the way Roosevelt had come over the radio into people’s living rooms offering a soothing, confident tone during the Depression and Second World War. One of the things that has been so devastating these past several years has been to see the erosion of everything that the men and women of the mid-century–Franklin & Eleanor, Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Dwight Eisenhower to name just a few–be undone thread by thread. Many today do not recognize how fragile the thing is and how difficult it was to put together to begin with.

I have been perusing some of the coverage and came across this piece by Kurt Graham, the director of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, in which Mr. Graham recounts what Truman and Roosevelt were doing on this date seventy-five year ago: preparing their separate talks for the annual Jefferson Dinner to have been held the following day. None of that happened, of course. With Roosevelt’s death Truman ascended to the president and a new era had commenced.

(image/FDR Presidential Library)

Happy Easter

Eleanor Roosevelt and crowd, White House Easter Egg Roll 1937

Easter Sunrise Service, Arlington National Cemetery, March 28, 1937

Happy Easter.

Here are two very different images from the 1937 commemoration. Atop we see Eleanor Roosevelt with some of the 50,000+ who gathered on the White House lawn for the Easter Egg Roll. Below is an assemblage attending the annual Easter Sunrise Service, at which (unseen in the image) First Lady Roosevelt spoke. This year’s service is being live-streamed.

Despite the enormous challenges and anxieties of our present moment, take time to pause and reflect in this time of spring and renewal.

(images/Library of Congress)

Thinking of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act while isolating in place

left to right: Henry Morgenthau, Joseph Kennedy, Harry Hopkins, and Harold Ickes at the White House, 1935

Today marks the 85th anniversary of the passage of one of the most significant acts of legislation to come during the Roosevelt Administration, which is saying a lot: it was on April 8, 1935 that the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act became law. The act gave Franklin Roosevelt even wider latitude to distribute Depression emergency funds as he saw fit. Surprisingly there does not seem to be an image of the signing, which took place after Roosevelt returned from a spring fishing trip. FDR being the master politician he was that probably was not accidental, though I don’t know why. Perhaps he was trying to paper over the failures and miscues of some of the alphabet soup agencies that had come into being in the two years since his presidency began. Two central ideas of the bill were 1) that the money would be more decentralized, giving state and local leaders more input into how to spend New Deal funds, and 2) that the emphasis would shift from relief itself to public works. The biggest change that came out of the bill was the creation of the Works Progress Administration.

The WPA’s influence surrounds most Americans every day, even if they are unaware. A good many of our bridges, post offices, roads, and so much more came out of it over the next several years. Culturally it did a lot too. As I type these words I can see the WPA American Guides for New York and Washington D.C. on my bookshelf. In addition to writers they put painters such as the young Jacob Lawrence to work via the Federal Art Project. Politically the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act led to a power struggle between Harold Ickes and Harry Hopkins over who would become the czar distributing these billions of dollars. Hopkins, who hardly anyone knows anymore despite all he did during the Depression and Second World War, won the struggles. The New Deal was not perfect and had all sorts of unintended consequences but I do not have the confidence in anyone within a leadership position in the current federal administration that I would have had in Hopkins, or Harold Ickes for that matter. So much of that story began eighty-five years ago today.

(image/Library of Congress)

Charles Sumner’s edition of the “Debates and Proceedings”

Charles Hale’s dedication of “Debates and Proceedings in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” to Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner Harvard bookplate

Here is something one does not see every day. In my research for a project I have been working on I pulled up the “Debates and Proceedings in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” The convention to which the title refers was the Commonwealth’s 1788 gathering at which they debated ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which itself had been approved at the Philadelphia convention in September 1787. The edition of “Debates and Proceedings” from which these images came was edited by Charles Hale and Bradford K. Peirce in 1856. This was during Bleeding Kansas when the sectional crisis was coming to boil. South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks’s savage caning of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner was on May 22, 1856, the same year of the publication of this book, which again I have been reading in digital format when I stumbled across the Sumner connection.

I cannot tell with 100% percent certainty but based on the introductory material this edition of “Debates and Proceedings” most likely was published after May of that year. That is, the monograph came out after the caning of Sumner, which made the Massachusetts legislator a martyr for Constitution and Union. Thus, Hale gave Sumner a signed copy–the one we see here. As we see from the bookplate above, Sumner’s personal library went to Harvard in 1874, the year he died. It was Sumner’s copy from the Harvard collection that was digitized and put online.




Rufus King weds Mary Alsop

The beautiful Mary Alsop married Rufus King on March 30, 1786.

Over the weekend I continued on a project that ideally will become public sometime later this spring. I’d rather save the content for the project itself but could not resist sharing right now that two of the main figures in my story were married on this date in Manhattan in 1786. Rufus King represented Massachusetts in the Congress of the Confederation when he met Mary Alsop, the beautiful daughter of wealthy New York City merchant John Alsop. The following year King represented Massachusetts in the 1787 Constitutional Convention and helped draft that document. By the following summer the necessary number of states had ratified the Consecution, after which he and Mary moved to New York permanently. King was soon elected to the U.S. Senate and served in the First Congress. More . . . hopefully, to come.


“Opening Day” 2020

U.S.S. Maine December 1897 Navy Baseball Champions

There will be no baseball played today but I could not let what was scheduled to be Opening Day 2020 go unmentioned. Baseball will return before long. I thought I would share this extraordinary photograph of the U.S.S. Maine baseball tram taken shortly after they won the December 1897 Navy Baseball Championship is Key West, Florida. Two months later all of these men except J.H. Bloomer.were killed in the explosion in Havana. A very cursory search of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for December 1897 shows the North Atlantic Squadron, of which the Maine was part, leaving for Key West in what the Navy Department was describing as routine maneuvers, the squadron apparently moving to warmer climes when winter set in. How true that is is hard to tell without greater digging. Tensions with Spain over Cuba were already escalating rapidly and it is equally feasible that the McKinley Administration was moving men–like the ones seen here–to South Florida in case things boiled over.

Major League Baseball is hosting today what it is calling Opening Day at Home. Despite the social distancing one can listen and watch the thirty classic games, one for each team, at MLBTV. Whatever you are doing today, working at home or what have you, stay safe. And remember, baseball will return before we know it.

(image/Wikimedia Commons)

Rod Serling’s Cold War comedy comes to radio

Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski, seen here on his 1953 Bowman card, may have been an inspiration for Rod Serling’s 1955 teleplay OToole from Moscow.

The Major League Baseball season was to have begun tomorrow but obviously has been postponed due to the ongoing health crisis. Baseball fans can get a taste of the National Pastime tonight and moving forward by listening to Cincinnati Public Radio’s 91.7 WVXU and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s collaborative reboot of Rod Serling’s O’Toole from Moscow. Serling’s teleplay originally aired on NBC television in December 1955. It appeared on a Monday afternoon at 3:00 PM, was not taped or recorded in any way, and then disappeared entirely.

The project is a thirty year labor of love from Cincinnati Inquirer journalist John Kiesewetter, who worked for that newspaper for four decades before getting downsized in the parched landscape that is our sadly disappearing local journalism. Rod Serling lived in Cincinnati for a brief time after attending school at Antioch College seventy-five miles or so down the road. Upon graduation Serling earned his bones in local Cincinnati broadcasting. He soon moved his growing family to Connecticut to break into the big time in New York. The Twilight Zone began in 1959. O’Toole is set in the Cold War and premised on confusing the Cincinnati baseball Reds with the Communist Soviet Reds. Serling’s teleplay is all the more fitting because Cincinnati has a great baseball heritage; the Reds are the first professional baseball team, having begun play in 1869.

Mr. Kiesewetter searched for decades to find the lost script and when he found it in the archives retooled it for radio. He had the blessing of Rod’s daughter Anne, who narrated the radio presentation. I am curious to see how it has all turned out. Though he was remarkably witty and quite the jokester off-camera, comedy was was never Rod Serling’s forté. Kiesewetter actually acknowledges that in this podcast but says the O’Toole is an exception. I have no reason to doubt him and look forward to the broadcast. It is great too that there is something new relating to Rod Serling right now; Carol Serling, his widow and the matriarch of the family, died earlier this year. I met her at the Twilight Zone Conference in Ithaca in October 2009 and she was most gracious. That O’Toole was completed with the participation of their daughter Anne makes it that much more meaningful.

O’Toole from Moscow debuts March 25 at 8:00 pm Eastern time. In the local Cincinnati area check it via radio at either WVXU 91.7 or WMUB 88.5. Outside Cincinnati one can also online at Cincinnati Public Radio’s 91.7 WVXU. After tonight’s initial broadcast the show will be archived online and also distributed across the country to National Public Radio stations.

(image/Metropolitan Museum of Art)



Rufus King, 1755-1827

Rufus King as portrayed by Gilbert Stuart circa 1820

Founding Father Rufus King was born on this date 265 years ago today, March 24, 1755. I do not want to write too much about King right now because I am currently working on a project relating to this forgotten early American, a drafter of the Constitution, and want to save my thoughts for that undertaking. In the meantime check out this piece I wrote last summer about visiting King Manor in Queens. I had intended to write about King more this past winter but got caught up in other things. I’ll say one about the self-isolating thing: it helps one be productive and get some work done. I was texting yesterday with a friend of mine, an intelligent person who works at a New York cultural institution currently closed due to the health crisis, saying I felt I must spend this time as fruitfully as possible amidst so much turmoil and loss. He said he understood and was doing the same.

Hopefully by summer everything will be back to normal, or at least a semblance of what passes for normal in our current historical moment. Among other things I want to return to Queens to see the King family’s final resting place around the corner from King Manor. The church grounds where they lay is only open certain hours in the morning, which I did not know at the time of my first visit. I saw the graveyard itself but had no way from the sidewalk on the other side of the gate where specifically he and his family within the grounds. People walk past every day without knowing that in their midst lies this Constitutional framer, three-term U.S. senator from New York, vice-presidential and presidential candidate.

(image/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)