February 27, 1933: the Reichstag burns

I would be remiss if I did not stop and at least briefly note that today is the anniversary of the Reichstag fire, the burning of the German parliament building in Berlin one month after Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship. The exact circumstances of the fire remain in dispute almost eight decades after the incident, though Nazi arson is often given as the most likely cause. What is clear is that Hitler used the incident as a means to secure greater control of his tenuous coalition; immediately following the conflagration, with the ashes still smoldering, they persuaded President Paul von Hindenburg to issue the Decree for the Protection of People and the Reich, known also as the Reichstag Fire Decree, clamping down on freedom of the press and other civil liberties. I have never understood why people do not take what public figures say at face value, especially when said figures are perfectly clear about their intentions. In Hitler’s case he had already made his objectives clear in the autobiography he had published in the mid-1920s. With the Reichstag fire the new German chancellor was one step closer to those goals.

(image/National Archives)

a “New Valley Forge”

Here are a few more images from my presentation this past Monday at Federal Hall on Presidents Day. Here we see an announcement for a Washington Birthday Democratic fundraiser held in Fort Worth, Texas on February 23, 1942. This was less than two months after Pearl Harbor in those tense days when the United States was getting up to speed in its war effort. The U.S. had been the “arsenal of democracy,” manufacturing tanks, bullets, jeeps, and whatnot for the Allies long prior to Pearl Harbor. Now American fighting men themselves would join the fray. As we see from the announcement the dinner was held on February 23, not Washington’s actually birthday, because the 22nd fell on a Sunday.

New York Times, February 23, 1942

Roosevelt himself did not attend the dinner, though as we see the Texas Democratic leadership was not hesitant to use his likeness, and on equal footing with President Washington no less. One must remember that Texas in this era was part of the Solid South, comprised, like the rest of the region, of Dixiecrats who since the Civil War eighty years previously had stood against the Party of Lincoln. In the 1930s these leaders, and those who voted for them, were part of the fragile New Deal coalition supporting FDR in cooperation with the Democratic machines of the northern cities. That coalition would hold another three decades until fracturing in the chaos of the Vietnam War and bitterness of the Civil Rights Movement. Roosevelt’s vice-president in his first two terms had been John Nance Garner, a Texan and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The tension and unease in their relationship were representative of the strains within the New Deal coalition itself.

Garner was gone by 1942 and now Roosevelt was facing the war in his unprecedented third term. What we see here is the snippet of an article from the February 23, 1942 New York Times describing the mood on Washington’s birthday in those weeks just after Pearl Harbor. The first public observation of George Washington’s birthday had been at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778. Now America was facing a “new Valley Forge.” Attendees at the Fort Worth soiree did not meet Franklin Roosevelt, but they did hear him. That night he gave one of his fireside chats over the radio outlining the progress and stakes of the war, and the lessons to be learned from the experience and difficulties of Washington and the men of his Continental Army all those years earlier.


The New Yorker turns 95

I have a friend who is working on a book manuscript that hopefully will see the light of day in a few short years. I don’t want to go too much into the details here because it is literally not my story to tell. I will say though that his narrative is about the history and evolution of New York City and that he is toiling away diligently on an under-explored aspect of the city’s development. My friend emailed the other day and asked if I could provide a rough outline of American society in the 1910s and 1920s to fill out the story and provide some context for his topic. I offered a few ideas, among them the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations; the influenza pandemic; Prohibition and related rise of organized crime; the Red Scare; the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. All in all pretty basic stuff. Another topic I added was the rise of magazines during the Roaring Twenties. For instance Henry Luce started Time in 1923 and Harold Ross edited and published the first issue of The New Yorker on February 21, 1925, ninety-five years ago today.

Journalsim has been ht hard in recent years by changes in information technology and other forces. Local newspapers are ceasing publication more than ever. I am old enough to remember when a subscription to Time magazine meant one was up on, well, the times. That magazine today is a shell of its former self. The New Yorker however has restored its footing in recent years after the magazine’s identity crisis during the best-forgotten Tina Brown years. Just yesterday I emailed three people “With the Beatles,” a short story by Haruki Murakami published in the current New Yorker issue. It is an extraordinary tale of loss and memory. My point really is that the magazine remains relevant for both its cultural and journalistic contributions.

I remember reading Nat Hentoff’s memoir many years ago in which he spoke of his admiration for longtime New Yorker chief William Shawn. Hentoff’s admiration of Shawn’s instincts and erudition was dampened only by his disappointment in the editor’s treatment of the staff, especially the non-writing staff, whom apparently Shawn was perpetually nickel-and-diming while hiding always behind a veneer of civility. I remember in the late 1990s–now so long ago–just a few years after Shawn’s 1992 death when a spate of memoir/biographies, laudatory and otherwise, came forth to praise and bury the man. I never read any of them, because literary feuds and gossip are two things I am not interested in.

Good journalism is time-consuming and expensive, which is often lost on us today when we log online each morning and surf the internet for free. We expect it to be free. It is that very reason why journalism is in such trouble today. Valuing journalism is something to think about in our current historical moment when there are people eager and willing to take the truth away from us. The 95th anniversary of The New Yorker is an opportune moment to ponder how good writing and reporting is produced, and how costly that production is. Whatever news and cultural sources you consume, consider throwing them a few shakels via a print and/or digital subscription in order for them to continue their important work.

Presidents Day 2020

April 6, 1861 Harper’s Weekly woodcut of the USS Wyandotte firing a salute in Pensacola Bay on February 22 in commemoration of George Washington’s birthday.

I am having my coffee before jumping in the shower and heading to Federal Hall in a short bit. Here is an image I intend to share today when discussing the history and evolution of George Washington’s Birthday. It is the original USS Wyandotte. Built in 1853 and christened the USS Western Port, the steamer saw action in South America and served in the Caribbean suppressing the slave trade prior to the Civil War. The image we see here depicts the Wyandotte in Pensacola Bay firing a salute to George Washington on February 22, 1861. This very same day President-elect Lincoln was in Philadelphia at Independence Hall marking Washington’s Birthday and raising a flag with an additional star on it in tribute to Kansas becoming a new state. He was on the train journey that was taking him from Illinois to Washington for his March 4 inaugural. It was an anxious time. Earlier this very month Jefferson Davis had been named Provisional President of the Confederacy and had spoken in Montgomery, Alabama on February 18 laying out the cause for secession.

(image/Library of Congress)


Sunday morning coffee

I spent a portion of this morning putting the final touches on an interpretive talk I’ll be giving tomorrow at Federal Hall. The talk is about the history and evolution of George Washington’s Birthday, which historically, with the Fourth of July, has served as a key part of America’s civic religion. There is a very human need for a usable past. On the federal level there is technically no such thing as President’s Day; the three-day weekend in which we are now in the middle is in commemoration of George Washington.

It will be good to be back at Federal Hall, where I have not been since Labor Day Weekend when it was last open on weekends. Later today I will go over my notes and outlines in preparation. The rotunda is closed for renovation but there will still a lot going on tomorrow if one is looking for something to do. That includes the talk by historian Lawrence Cappello. Come and get your history on.

Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. My gosh, was the bicentennial of his birth actually eleven years ago now? I remember it so vividly. Lincoln’s birthday, along with Washington’s, used to be a major holiday in the United States. Or more precisely, Lincoln’s was a major holiday in half the United States; in parts of the Old Confederacy they observed the birth of Robert E. Lee (January 19, 1807), Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (January 21, 1824), or some combination of the two. If one has followed the news the past several years one knows that they are still sorting out how to deal with that Lost Cause narrative of which Lee and Jackson are the quintessential embodiment. Lincoln’s birthday has itself been used and abused. I did not know until the other day that Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Enemies from Within” speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, which he delivered seventy years ago this week on February 9, 1950, charging wild insinuations about the State Department, was delivered during a Lincoln birthday commemoration. It is a reminder of the need for public figures to speak carefully and honestly, and what we stand to lose when they do not.

Congressman Joseph Cannon reciting the Gettysburg Address on the House floor, February 12, 1920

Here we see Lincoln’s birthday on the House floor as it was commemorated one hundred years ago today. That’s Congressman Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois reciting the Gettysburg Address. Cannon had been House Speaker from 1903-1911 and by the time it was done would serve forty-six years in Congress. February 1920 was a difficult time in our nation’s history, coming as it did after the Red Summer of 1919 here in the United States and increasingly turbulent situation in Europe as well.

The institution where I work might be the last one which closes on Lincoln’s birthday. It is a nice little respite after the grind that is the first few weeks of the semester. I am determined to get out, and am debating whether to go to either the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan or stay local and hit the Brooklyn Museum.

(image/Library of Congress)


The Fifteenth Amendment

One of the messiest legislative enterprises in American history reached its climax 150 years ago today when the required three-fourths majority of the states–28 of 37–ratified the Fifteenth Amendment. The episode is so convoluted that, while we credit Iowa with being that 28th state and ratifying on February 3, 1870, state representatives had actually done so in January. And that’s just the beginning of the mess. There was even more confusion if the three-fourths bar had in fact been reached. For one thing two state legistlatures of the former Confederacy–Georgia and Mississippi–had also approved the amendment–even though they had not yet been “reconstructed” and legally brought back into the Federal Union. Needless to say, all this sowed further confusion into the legality of the measure designed to give African-American adult males the vote. Still, it is February 3 which we use by common consensus.

In “Incorporating New York,” my manuscript about Civil War Era & Reconstruction Era New York, I describe the Empire State’s especially tawdry response to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Horatio Seymour had run for the presidency against Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 largely on a platform of resistance to Civil Rights. Grant won that November and just before he assumed office on March 4, 1869, the U.S. House and Senate passed the amendment, on February 25 & 26 respectively to be precise. The New York State legislature ratified the Fifteenth Amendment on April 14, 1869 over the veto of Governor John T. Hoffman. Then in January 1870 a newly-installed New York legislature reversed the state’s ratification. Is such a thing permissible? It was, and remains, unclear. As it relates to the Fifteenth Amendment however all that became moot the following month when a fully required 28 states had done so. The Harper’s Weekly cartoon we see here is from March 12, 1870. It depicts annoying, but ultimately insignificant, flies representing various holdout states trying to impede the African-American man’s vote. There is only one fly with a human face, and in a great jab on Harper’s part it is that of John T. Hoffman.

Of course the Fifteenth Amendment’s gains proved short-lived. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and other restrictive measures became the law of the land north and south for decades until passage of the Voting Right Act of 1965.


International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2020

Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp railroad entrance

I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly mention that today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Today is also the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Earlier today I had a brief email back-and-forth with a friend who is a Holocaust survivor. He has been speaking out on the road a lot this winter and I believe gets back to the city later in the week. After I got home I checked out some of the news coverage and social media online from around the world. It sounds ridiculous to say but it is often lost on us how global was the Second World War, the extent to which it reached into virtually every house and hamlet across the globe regardless of how large or small. The Second World War seems ironically so long ago and yet as close and relevant as it was in 1945. As the late military historian John Keegan often said, the history of war has not truly been written yet. The consequences and aftereffects are still playing themselves out, and probably willful many decades. In our current moment it is more important than ever to study history across all regions and eras, which is why there are people out there who would take it away from us.

A book they gave us at the training I attended at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum two weeks ago was Michael Dobbs’s “The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between,” which I intend to read this coming weekend.


Sunday morning coffee

Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt ride to the inaugural, March 4, 1933

It’s a glorious morning. I am listening to Bill Evans with my coffee.

I took advantage of yesterday’s rain and sleet to move some computer files around and do my first bit of actual writing of the new year. During the holidays I outlined some projects that I intend to work on in 2020 which I think are realistic. Then it was off to Florida for some R&R followed by the training sessions at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum I mentioned in a post last week. Now it’s about getting down into the weeds and doing what I can. I don’t mind admitting that I’m a tad apprehensive because my projects cross various time periods and subjects. Still I have what I feel are some good ideas on some under-explored topics that I can bring to fruition. It will be a productive winter of work.

The spring term begins tomorrow and today I’ll stay close to the house, do the laundry, buy some groceries, write a bit in the afternoon, and prepare for the excitement and grind that accompany a new semester.

Enjoy your Sunday.

(image/National Archives and Records Administration)


Asking questions

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Yesterday I got back from Washington, D.C., where in addition to a little rest and relaxation I attended a two-day training seminar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall. There were fifty trainees from across the country all told, and the sessions were led by an extraordinary group of historians, archivists, educators, librarians, and museum professionals. I cannot express what a privilege it was to attend. I won’t go into too much detail as of yet because many details have yet to be worked out, but if all goes as planned this project will lead to several thought-provoking historiographical and interpretive programs. In these challenging, often despairing, times it is more important than ever to understand history properly. The United States’s responses to the rise of fascism, the war, and the Holocaust itself were complicated to say the least. As is the case with all historical events, one must embrace the contradictions and complexity to understand fully. As the sign in the photograph I took at the museum implies, it is up to us not just to provide answers but to ask the right questions.

Going in to the sessions I already had a number programming ideas. In the breakout sessions and group discussions the event organizers and attendees gave me a number of further options and possibilities to explore. Hopefully I gave them some ideas as well. This will be an ongoing endeavor and those conversations will continue. I intend to share more on this in the coming weeks and months as things further develop.