Category Archives: Social History

Interesting Civil War finds nearby (part 1)

Seattle seems so geographically and culturally removed from the region of the US that is saturated in Civil War monuments and history. Yet, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, bits of this pivotal time for Americans turn up in Seattle–even just less than 10 blocks from where I live on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

William H. Seward–Lincoln’s Secretary of State–has quite a presence in the town with parks and streets named after him.  This statue stands in Volunteer Park and went up originally for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon Exposition. While arguably remembered more for Seward’s Folly, he was also the subject of an assassination attempt the same night as Lincoln.  He was stabbed multiple times in bed by Lewis Powell just as Lincoln was fatally shot in the head across town at Ford’s Theater.  The would-be assassin of Vice-President Johnson got drunk and cold feet and failed his portion of the mission.  I think this plot–to take out the top three in line of Presidential Succession simultaneously and create unprecedented domestic fear and chaos–is definitely this nation’s greatest act of domestic terrorism.  Although it certainly is not viewed in that light in my Feb/March Reading Project.

William H. Seward statue in Seattle’s Volunteer Park.

I snapped this close-up of the dedication plaque 3/19/2012

Seward Statue: 3/19/2012

Last week I was at the UW Health Sciences Building and stumbled across this display of actual Civil War medical instruments used in the battlefield.  Featured were limb amputation saws.  That last picture I took this past week is actually my favorite because it is so real and so personal.  It shows how feelings about the Civil War and the USA’s past still have an organic relevance with people.  This display was in the window of a small mom & pop African-American hair salon.

the 16th & the 44th on Seattle’s 23rd

Quick peek @ Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle

This coming Sunday I am going to a party with some of my best friends in the North Seattle neighborhood of Greenwood.  This is the very first neighborhood I lived in when I moved to Seattle many years ago, I was there about a year before moving to the University District. I switched to Capitol Hill after I returned from South Africa and have been there ever since.   I didn’t know much about Greenwood’s history (aside from my 1950s first apartment) so I did a little digging and found these!

Public transportation circa 1930 at Greenwood Ave N & 85th. I’d much prefer this to the Metro Route 48!

Williamson Grocery: 7401 Greenwood Avenue N in 1912

Which is now one of my favorite pubs!

Alaskan politics, Super Tuesday, and Ron Paul

A few weeks ago when I was thinking about Republican Super Tuesday 2012 I was of the same line of thought as Robert O’Brien: that Libertarian-laden Alaska and Maine could be the two states Ron Paul wins (possibly North Dakota as well). While there is still some controversy about the Maine results, I want to talk about Alaska’s caucus today:

Alaska’s electorate is notorious for challenging the Republican Establishment (if I can borrow an overused term from this year), and has shown on numerous occasions since 1959 statehood its voters love to think outside the box (if I can borrow an overused term from this decade). With a cast of characters like Mike Gravel, Jay Hammond, Nick Begich, Ted Stevens, and Ernest Gruening I always cringe a little bit when Alaska is dismissively viewed as the ultimate Western Red State. This is too simplistic: Alaska has a ban on capital punishment, for instance, and abortion was legal there before Roe vs Wade.  Alaska had liberal/Libertarian marijuana laws even during the height of Reagan-era war on drugs.  In 1992 Alaska had the largest Ross Perot vote in the union: 29%  My alma mater is the University of Alaska–Fairbanks and on two occasions I had the opportunity to meet Gov. Walter Hickel. He was elected Alaska’s first Republican governor in 1966 and then again won a successful second term over 25 years later running on the Alaska Independence Party ticket (more on this strange party later).  More recently, Lisa Murkowski made history with her successful write-in US Senate candidacy defying and defeating the Tea Party candidate (Miller) when the Republican climate elsewhere during the 2010 midterms was pure Tea Party.  And then of course there is the strange and curious career of a certain former Miss Alaska first runner-up from Wasilla you may have heard of.  It’s hard to remember now that she actually ousted a sitting Republican governor (Lisa’s father Frank–yes Alaskan politics can get rather incestuous) with bi-partisan support.

Alaska has more card-carrying Libertarians (proportionally) than any other US State and it goes without saying a huge proportion of Paul’s support comes from Libertarians and Libertarian-leaning independents.  Yet, this “out and proud” Libertarian faction in Alaska could actually prove harmful at Paul at the caucus level: Alaska is a closed-caucus state, meaning only registered Republicans can caucus.  This will skew things to a GOP caucus that more resembles other Red States–the “Wasilla faction” having a disproportionate (for Alaska) influence since the Indies, Libertarians, (and mischief-making Democrats) are barred from participating today.  Still, I expect Paul to do very well in Alaska like he does in most caucus states but if I was a betting man I’d say Romney will take it, but by just a smidge.  If it was an open-primary state I have no doubt Paul would handily win an easy majority of Alaska’s 27 delegates and be able to claim 1st place.  As it is, though, I expect him to pick up a good number of delegates in the Last Frontier and make his time spent there (the only candidate of the remaining four) worth the trip.

Thanks to UAF here is a vintage television ad for US Senator Ernest Gruening’s write-in campaign in 1968.  The former territorial governor and US senator was not as successful as Lisa Murkowski would be in 2010, however.

Ethan Frome, Calvin Coolidge, and me

Last week Diane Rehm had an hour-long book discussion all about Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome. Ethan Frome is probably the first book considered by the literati as indisputably “Cannon” that I became borderline-obsessed with.  I think I was a 15 or 16-year-old student at North Pole High School in Alaska when I first read it.  Edith Wharton has long since become a favorite of mine, but I hadn’t re-visited Ethan Frome until last year.  On Rehm’s (excellent) discussion a guest reasons that perhaps it isn’t one of the better classics for high school students for various reason (I don’t want to spoil the bleak ending here), and that its more suitable to university studies. I have wondered if it gets on a lot of lists for time-crunch reasons as it’s Wharton, but it’s also nice and short.  I do remember not especially liking it per se but just thinking about the characters much more and for much longer than I was used to at that age.  Perhaps the novel’s tone of isolation, cold, and bleakness (it’s set in an isolated, rural region of New England and most of the crucial scenes are in stark winter settings) struck a chord with me living in Alaska at the time without close friends.

I was actually in New England for the first time right around Ethan Frome’s centenary and was able to snap some pictures on my phone that seem straight out of Wharton’s book.  I visited Calvin Coolidge’s birthplace/museum in rural Vermont.  It here that then Vice-President Coolidge received word that President Warren G. Harding had died unexpectedly.  Coolidge was quickly sworn in as the 30th President of the United States, by his own father who was the nearest notary public.  The museum/visitor center was actually closed that day, but it is situated in his isolated homestead area of Plymouth Notch.  It is also Calvin & Grace Coolidge’s final place of burial at Plymouth Notch cemetery which feels like it came straight out of Starkfield (anvil drop!), the bleak fictional setting of Ethan Frome.

A Wikipedia photograph of Plymouth Notch Cemetery in summertime

Three images of John Brown being led to execution

I know next to nothing about art, but I love to analyze artwork that depicts a historical event.  Usually it says more about the time it was created than the actual period it represents. Recently I had the pleasure of spending an entire afternoon at the de Young Museum in San Francisco which is walking distance from my brother and sister-in-law’s place!

I was able to finally see this oil painting in the flesh: The Last Moments of John Brown by Thomas Hovenden.  It depicts anti-slavery martyr or domestic terrorist (depending on your perspective, I’ll give mine in a future post) John Brown being led to the gallows for his execution.  The online images don’t do certain aspects justice.  It’s harder to see how the dark row of brick, door frame and dark bit of the soldier’s belt form a symbolic cross behind the Brown but in person it really comes through! The Biblical imagery is strong, and even though the hanging-noose already being looped arround Brown’s neck–and his Christ-like kissing of the slave child–is likely apocryphal it makes for a really moving image to me.  This was painted around 1883, which is very telling.  This is nearly 25 years after John Brown’s attempt to spark a slave revolt at Harper’s ferry, and about 20 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Reconstruction was just finished and the process of the (white) South rolling back multi-racial representative democracy would just started getting its momentum.  The (white) North was also suffering from Reconstruction-fatigue so I can’t help but wonder if the artist was trying to remind and re-energize a populace that was increasingly becoming weary or indifferent to the plight of African-Americans.  By 1890 all the ex-Confederate states had successfully dismantled all of Reconstruction’s triumphs in practice if not in name.

Here is a painting from 1867 by Thomas Noble that also depicts John Brown being led by soldiers to his execution.  Note in this image he also blesses the slave infant being held up to him from his mother, although in this case it is with a laying of hands rather than a kiss.  Also notice the young white girl present in both representations.

This is a Courier & Ives lithograph showing the same moment with John Brown and the slave child on the way to the gallows.  It is the oldest of the three (1863), done at the height of the War.  The young white girl does not appear in this one.

2012, 1912 & 3rd Party Candidates

I was reading a short piece in the Washington Post today about Third Party presidential candidates in the US.  It made me think about how everyone claims to want a Third Party but it never really takes off.  Bernstein says a “successful” Third Party run (not sure how he views successful but since he talks about Ross Perot and George Wallace I’ll conjecture he means around 10% of the vote or more):  “one or more of the following: fame, money, political qualifications and a built-in constituency“.

I’ve been reading a lot of Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt materials over the last 8 months and so the 4-way split of 1912 has really been on my mind!

Think about Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debbs getting nearly 7% of the vote.  At first that doesn’t seem like much, but look at all the hand-wringing and free media exposure Ralph Nader got as a “third party spoiler” (even before Florida) in 2000 and he didn’t even hit 3%!  With our infuriating Electoral College a 7% siphoning off of votes from either of the two major parties is more than enough to tilt the balance in many states.  I haven’t done a close enough state-by-state analysis of where Eugene Debbs did the best, but because there were THREE other candidates I think the tipping power was not as strong in 1912 as it would have been any other election year including this one.  Incidentally this is the best results the Socialist Party has ever enjoyed in the US at the national level. Post-Cold War it’s hard for us to imagine that the Socialist Party was once a viable option in the US heartland.

1912 Socialist Party candidate for President Eugene Debs

But the true Third Party challenger here was good ole’ Teddy Roosevelt.  The former president attempting the ultimate comeback still holds the all-time record for best showing of a Third Party (popular vote @ 28%).  He definitely had the “fame, money, political qualifications and a built-in constituency” and international rock star status to boot. It’s a given, really, that had the GOP convention rules been different Teddy would have been the nominee and (I believe) won the presidency handily.  Not to use this as a rant against the 22nd Amendment (which codified a two-term limit) but I think an unfortunate side-effect of that amendment is that it’s killed the chances of a former president, however beloved, throwing his hat in the ring.  Popular two-termers are out of the running entirely, and I feel we’ve (unfortunately) developed the mindset as American voters that one-term = failure.  I’d argue on foreign policy George H.W. Bush was a far superior president to Bill Clinton, but I’ll save that one for another day.

2000 Green Party candidate for President Ralph Nader

So who does that leave for us in 2012? Donald Trump was pretty hilarious when he toyed with it but all he had was the “fame and money” part of the equation, there really is no built-in constituency. Ross Perot had three out of four, it was only the political qualifications part he lacked in 1992. There is a case for Mayor Bloomberg, but don’t we already have a moderate candidate with Barack Obama? I can’t see very many Democrats going over to the Bloomberg camp outside of NYC, and there is that dual Evangelical and Tea Party base that would never vote for Bloomberg so whatever Independents and moderate Republicans he could capture in the swing states would probably just result in throwing the state over to Obama.

Traditionally there have always been mini-parties within the parties: liberal Republicans and conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and conservative ones.  Yet, that has pretty much faded away now: you’d be hard-pressed to find a Republican who also calls themselves a Liberal since Betty Ford passed away.  For all the excitement and drama of the 2008 Democratic Primary, there was actually very little space between Hillary and Barack.  The main difference was their style and approach despite attempts to paint contrasts as the race drew on.  I supported Obama from late 2006 onward when he was the odd long shot not because he was to the left of Hillary, but because I believed his (non-Baby Boomer) approach and worldview would be superior with the Party’s new demographics and appeal to a certain type of independent who had voted against Bill Clinton in the past. If there was a Third Party challenge from the Left–and I feel that is where there is the gaping hole currently–I don’t see a current person with the fame, money OR built-in contingency to pull it off.

Back to Teddy Roosevelt and his most successful Third Party run ever.  Although the common wisdom is that the Taft/Teddy splitting of the vote = a Wilson win I think that the short-lived Progressive (Republican) Party of Teddy helped create the modern Democratic Party.  Counter-intuitively, the “old Republicans” (Taft) who were humiliated (think about it, a sitting president only getting 23% of the re-election vote?!) by Teddy’s new progressive Republican spin-off party didn’t adapt or update their party platform much.  Yet, during Wilson’s presidency the Democratic Party really transformed itself into a party of social reform and international involvement, much of this inspired by TR’s hugely successful run.  

Last link to WWI gone at age 110

The last person to wear a uniform during the First World War died over the weekend.

Since that era is back in vogue now with Downton Abbey here’s an interest collection of anachronistic language bloopers.  “Just Sayin'” stuck out like a sore thumb at the time, but the use of “contact” (“try to contact, get in contact with…”) is really a more recent usage than WWI?  Huh.

february/march project: confederacy mythology & the dunning school

I’ve been actively following and participating in the Ta-Nehisi blog at the Atlantic for the last eight months or so in the most thoughtful, in-depth discussions of slavery and the Civil War I’ve ever found on the web.  Check out the discussion and buy a copy of their special Civil War Sesquicentennial Editon (newstands only!)

While the Reconstruction talk has been slim (thusfar) I felt like I should take a hard look at the revisionist history that influenced so much of Americans’ feelings about that time and still carries today. So I’m not really looking to learn about the Reconstruction Era itself (see Eric Foner’s work) but rather to study the heyday of the Lost Cause myth-making and national amnesia.  I drop the term “Dunning School” as a shorthand to the “Birth of a Nation” feelings about Reconstruction, so I think it’s high time I actually read the book.

Here’s the reading list for FEB:

The Leopard’s Spots – Thomas Dixon 1902

The Clansman – Thomas Dixon 1905

Reconstruction, Political and Economic 1865-1877 1907

The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincolm 1929

The first two books are the notorious, racist inspiration for Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (which I have seen twice: once in a rare revival showing in Seattle and once in a film class as an undergraduate).  I’m curious about the actual books themselves both as distorted history and popular fiction of the time.