March 4, 1909 – Newly Elected President Taft Applauds the End of Racism in the South

On this day in history, a mere twelve years after the Supreme Court sanctioned racial segregation in public facilities in Plessy v. Ferguson, William Howard Taft delivered his inaugural address, speaking in depth about all the progress made in the South toward the rights of African Americans.

U.S. President, William Howard Taft, center, reviewing the parade after his inauguration as 
President March 4, 1909.

U.S. President, William Howard Taft, center, reviewing the parade after his inauguration as 
President March 4, 1909.

The new president assured his fellow Americans, in a variation of “some of my best friends are blacks”:

I have not the slightest race prejudice or feeling, and recognition of its existence only awakens in my heart a deeper sympathy for those who have to bear it or suffer from it, and I question the wisdom of a policy which is likely to increase it.”

He then discussed the Fifteenth Amendment (which granted African American men the right to vote by declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”).

President Taft admitted that the fifteenth amendment had not been generally observed in the past, but “the tendency of Southern legislation today is toward the enactment of electoral qualifications which shall square with that amendment.”

When President Taft took office, however, as Ira Katznelson observes in his book Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time,

By 1908, the South had perfected a political system to guard white supremacy successfully even in counties with black majorities. A host of mechanisms ensured virtually no chance to vote for African-Americans, and a low-turnout franchise for white citizens. These devices included white primaries, declarations that political parties were restricted private clubs, poll taxes, property tests, literacy tests, and understanding clauses that tested for arcane knowledge of the provisions in state constitutions.”

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In fact, throughout the years since 1900, racial conflict had plagued the nation. Some of the better known race riots include incidents in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1900, Springfield, Ohio in 1904, Brownsville, Texas, in 1906 and Springfield, Illinoisin 1908.

Legislation designed to solify “Jim Crow” practices in the South also proliferated in this time period, such as anti-miscegenation laws (Alabama, 1901; Florida, 1903, Mississippi 1906, Louisiana, 1908), as well as provisions mandating separation of schools and public accommodations. The Ku Klux Klan was also gaining ground again in the South, destined to reach its peak in the 1920s.

jim-crow-laws

President Taft contradicted himself in the speech, by acknowledging that “race feeling” is in some instances “widespread and acute.” He counseled that in those circumstances, however, governments should avoid exacerbating the problem by appointing members of the negro race to local public offices. This might, after all, “interfere with the ease and facility with which the local government business can be done by the appointee.”

Above all, Taft insisted:

…so long as the statutes of the States meet the test of [the Fifteenth Amendment] and are not otherwise in conflict with the Constitution and laws of the United States, it is not the disposition or within the province of the Federal Government to interfere with the regulation by Southern States of their domestic affairs.”

President William Howard Taft.

March 1, 1803 – Ohio Joins the Union as the 17th State (Sort of)

The settling of Ohio began in 1788 with the arrival of 48 members of an expedition sponsored by the Ohio Company, which purchased more than one and a half million acres of the Northwest Territory from Congress. Within three years, the male population of the area reached 5,000, and the settlers were given the right to elect a house of representatives.

ohiocap

On February 19, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson signed an act of Congress approving Ohio’s boundaries and constitution. However, Congress never passed a resolution formally admitting Ohio as the 17th state. The current custom of Congress declaring an official date of statehood did not begin until 1812, with Louisiana’s admission as the 18th state.

When the oversight was discovered in 1953, Ohio congressman George H. Bender introduced a bill in Congress to admit Ohio to the Union retroactive to March 1, 1803, the date on which the Ohio General Assembly first convened. At a special session at the state capital, the Ohio state legislature approved a new petition for statehood. A rider, George Murphy, set out from the state capital (then at Chillicothe) on horseback to duplicate the ride of Thomas Worthington in 1803 when Worthington bore the original petition for statehood to the Capitol. Murphy and his steed, however, made part of the trip by motor caravan, according to the March 10, 1953 report in the Marysville (Ohio) Journal-Tribune. Murphy arrived in D.C. six days after leaving Ohio, and handed the petition to the Congressional Speaker of the House.

On August 7, 1953 (the year of Ohio’s 150th anniversary), President Eisenhower signed a congressional joint resolution that officially declared March 1, 1803 the date of Ohio’s admittance into the Union.

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More presidents have come from Ohio than any other state. They include William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William H. Taft, and Warren G. Harding. Four of them died in office.

map

February 25, 1960 – Anti-segregation Sit-in at the Montgomery, AL County Courthouse

On this day in history, students from Alabama State College (a traditionally African American college in Montgomery, Alabama), stated an anti-segregation sit-in at a lunch counter in the Montgomery County Courthouse. In response, the store-owners closed the lunch counter and a mob of pro-segregationists physically assaulted the students.

Student sit-in participants

Student sit-in participants

Four days later, on February 29, Alabama Governor John Patterson held a news conference to condemn the sit-in. Patterson, who was also chairman of the State Board of Education, threatened to terminate Alabama State College’s funding unless it expelled the student organizers and warned that “someone [was] likely to be killed” if the protests continued.

On March 1, more than 1000 protesters marched from the campus to the state capitol and back. On March 2, Alabama’s all-white State Board of Education unanimously accepted then-Gov. John Patterson’s expulsion resolution. Under pressure, then-ASU president Harper Councill Trenholm expelled the nine students identified as sit-in leaders and suspended 20 other students.

On Sunday March 6, protesters began to gather at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy – a well-known member of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A crowd of whites surrounded the church, physically assaulting some members of the march and forcing them to flee into the church. It was reported that the city fire company brought two fire trucks to the scene and used the high-powered fire hoses on retreating protesters; soon after this, the police dispersed the crowds and ended the protest.

A white man swinging a baseball bat at a black woman the day after the black students were refused service at the courthouse cafeteria

A white man swinging a baseball bat at a black woman the day after the black students were refused service at the courthouse cafeteria

More than 1000 students immediately pledged a mass strike, threatened to withdraw from the school, and staged days of demonstrations; 35 students, a faculty member, and a physician were arrested. Montgomery Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan recommended closing the college, which he claimed produced only “graduates of hate and racial bitterness.”

Dr. King sent a telegram to President Eisenhower on March 9, writing:

MR PRESIDENT WE APPEAL T O YOU TO INTERVENE BY INSTRUCTING THE ATTORNEY GENERAL TO TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION IN YOUR NAME TO RESTORE LAW AND ORDER IN THE CAPI- TAL OF ALABAMA. . . . WE APPEAL TO YOU TO URGE THE CITY AUTHORITIES TO PUT DOWN THEIR GUNS, TO GARAGE THEIR VEHICLES OF AGGRESSION WE ARE UNARMED AND DEDICATED TO NON VIOLENCE THOUGH DETERMINED TO RESIST EVIL.”

Meanwhile, six of the nine expelled students sought reinstatement through a federal lawsuit. (On August 4, 1961, in Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education (294 F. 2d 150, 5th Cir. 1961) a federal court upheld the expulsions and barred the students’ readmission to the school.)

On February 25, 2010, in a ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the sit-in, Alabama State University (formerly Alabama State College) President William Harris reinstated the nine students, criticized Governor Patterson’s “arbitrary, illegal and intrusive” role in forcing the expulsions, and praised the student protest as “an important moment in civil rights history.” Three of the men, James McFadden, St. John Dixon and Joseph Peterson, received honorary degrees.

February 23, 1723 – Birthdate of Richard Price, Would-Be Founding Father

On this day in history, Richard Price was born in Wales. He became a Presbyterian minister in London, and joined the “Society for Constitutional Information,” a British activist group founded in 1780 to promote parliamentary reform. An avid intellectual, he also participated in the informal dining club named by Benjamin Franklin “The Club of Honest Whigs.”

Portrait of Richard Price, 1784

Portrait of Richard Price, 1784

Price achieved fame as an advocate of civil liberties and of the American and French revolutions. In early 1776 he published Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America. Sixty thousand copies of this pamphlet were sold within days, and a second cheaper edition sold twice as many copies. Price rapidly became one of the best known men in England, and his name became identified with the cause of American independence.

Price later wrote Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution and The Means of Rendering it a Benefit to the World (1784). Well-received by Americans, it suggested that the greatest problem facing Congress was its lack of central powers.

He was visited and admired by Americans Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and John and Abigail Adams, as well as a number of British politicians including William Pitt the Elder. He also consorted with philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith.

According to Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, who writes about his mathematical prowess in The Theory That Would Not Die (Yale University Press, 2011), the Continental Congress of the United States asked Price to move to America and manage its finances, and Thomas Jefferson asked Price to write to the youth of Virginia about the evils of slavery. An English magazine at the time thought Price would figure in American history as largely as Franklin, Washington, Lafayette, and Thomas Paine.

Alas, Price stayed in England, and is now more remembered for his contribution to Bayes’ Theorem on probability than his relationship with, and influence upon, the American Revolutionaries.

February 20, 1809 – Justice John Marshall Declares The Power of the Federal Judiciary Greater Than That of Individual States

On this day in history, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for a unanimous Court, ruled in United States v. Peters (9 U.S. 115, 1809) that a state legislature could not annul a judgment of a federal court:

If the legislatures of the several states may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery; and the nation is deprived of the means of enforcing its laws by the instrumentality of its own tribunals.”

Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall

Governor Snyder of Pennsylvania, against whose interests the ruling was made, and who was an avid supporter of state-rights, sent a message to the Pennsylvania legislature saying he would call the militia if necessary to prevent enforcement of the Court’s decision. The legislature obviously concurred with him:

Resolved, That, from the construction the United States’ courts give to their powers, the harmony of the States, if they resist encroachments on their rights, will frequently be interrupted; and, if to prevent this evil, they should, on all occasions, yield to stretches of power, the reserved rights of the States will depend on the arbitrary power of the courts.

Resolved, That should the independence of the States, as secured by the Constitution, be destroyed, the liberties of the people in so extensive a country cannot long survive.” 21 Annals Cong. 2265-66 (1810)

The Governor sent a letter to President James Madison, expecting his support, but received none. In a letter from Madison to Snyder on April 13, 1809, the President wrote:

…the Executive of the United States is not only unauthorized to prevent the execution of a decree sanctioned by the Supreme Court of the United States, but is expressly enjoined, by statute, to carry into effect any such decree where opposition may be made to it.” (21 Annals of Cong. 2269, 1810)

President James Madison

President James Madison

On April 15, the Pennsylvania legislature voted to withdraw the militia.

Review of “Engaging With History in the Classroom: The American Revolution” by Janice I. Robbins and Carol L. Tieso

It is illuminating to see what perspective of American History is being presented in educational materials these days, especially after the recent brouhaha in Colorado and elsewhere, including the Republican National Committee. Conservatives claim that the way American History is taught “paints a darker picture of the country’s heritage and undervalues concepts such as ‘American exceptionalism.’”

But of course, there is the small matter of truth hanging in the balance.

This book is intended for U.S. history units for grades six to eight, with a focus on “what it means to be an American citizen.” The authors claim their approach will enable students to learn “to question the accounts left behind and to recognize different perspectives on the major events in U.S. history.”

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The book includes a number of “scripts” for teachers, handouts, project ideas, maps, lists of relevant websites, and guides to analysis.

The questioning of history encouraged by this book is commendable, but not really very extensive.

Most notably, it only skims the surface of the role of Native Americans in the period before and during the American Revolution. For example, the section on the French and Indian War is short and not very informative. Although the account in the book mentions that Natives participated on both sides, in fact the numbers of Natives were significant. The book also does not mention at all the role 21-year-old George Washington played in actually starting the war. In 1754, France and Britain were disputing the right to control the fur trade from the Ohio River Valley westward and southward. Washington led a group of men who attacked the French with bayonets while they were sleeping, killing ten of them including their commander. This skirmish led to a countermove in revenge, and escalated from there into a world-wide conflict (the Seven Years War). This would have provided a good opportunity to discuss the often less than “noble” incentives for going to war. Nor do the authors mention that the French were kept well-supplied by colonists eager to make a buck.

In addition, the Treaty of 1763 (ending the war), which forbad colonies from making land grants beyond the Appalachian continental divide, was in fact one of the biggest issues leading to the American Revolution. The land-hungry colonists were enraged, as they felt the “barbarous” non-Christian natives did not deserve the riches of this vast country. Encroaching on Indian land and the subsequent genocide of the natives is barely a footnote in this book. (The war is discussed as part of Lesson 3, “Whose Land Is It, Anyway?.” The thrust of this section is that ownership and control of the land was a source of contention among the American colonists, the British, and the French. Really? What about Native Americans?!!!!)

The book does correct the canard that the colonists were being unfairly taxed, when in fact they paid less taxes than people did in Great Britain, and there were a great deal of expenses in administering the colonies and seeing to their defense. But there is no mention of the network of greed, smuggling, and bribery by the “Founding Fathers” that underlay the objections to the taxes. The lowering of the cost of tea by Britain accompanying the tax on tea (a fact hardly ever mentioned) interfered with the huge smuggling operations which had been making the colonists exceedingly rich. (One of the biggest smugglers was the governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock.) Similarly, the Molasses Act to which colonists objected also interfered with their smuggling, of an estimated 1.5 million gallons of molasses a year! In addition to being tax free, the molasses was produced by slave labor and helped perpetuate the slave trade. As historian Harlow Giles Unger wrote, in American Tempest:

…many were ready to sacrifice their honor as human beings – and the blood of innocents – by disguising their struggle for wealth as a quest for liberty for the common man.”

Not only did some colonists amass wealth and power, but the British treasury suffered huge loses. Yet the Americans were still angry that the British did not do enough for them, especially in terms of guarding the frontiers from Native Americans unhappy with having had their land stolen. The authors mention none of this.

They also might have discussed how coming into power changed the revolutionaries into defenders of the status quo. For example, Sam Adams, the one-time arch enemy of taxation, served as governor of Massachusetts from 1793 until 1797. He now insisted taxes must be paid, declaring that “The man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”

On the other hand, the authors chose to include some aspects of the American Revolution not often told, such as the perspective of the soldiers in the field, who had to deal with fear, cold, starvation, disease, horrible weather, fatigue, etc.

They also include a letter from John Adams, husband of the remarkable Abigail, justifying to James Sullivan (a governor of Massachusetts) why he opposed giving the vote to women. There is also a small amount of material on slavery, but it is treated as a sort of a side-bar type of issue, along with the issues of women and Native Americans. Nevertheless, kudos to the authors for including it at all.

Evaluation: This material doesn’t really challenge the hegemonic American narrative – one that prioritizes whiteness, exploitation of the land and its resources, and the use of violence as a means of further entrenching the interests of white males, particularly those of wealth. It does not disrupt the American myth of heroic forbears, and imparts a very rosy glow to the causes of the American Revolution. It does make an effort to encourage students to consider multiple points of view, however (even if in a limited way). It also offers some minority perspectives usually missing from pre-college curricula.

On the positive side, the inclusion of “scripts” for teachers, primary documents, and lesson ideas is great, and will be much appreciated.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Prufrock Press, 2014

February 15, 1933 – Assassination Attempt on President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt

On this day in history, America’s President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt in Miami, Florida when an unemployed brick layer fired five shots at his open touring car. FDR escaped injury, but four others were wounded, and Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak (who was shaking hands with Roosevelt at the time) was mortally wounded.

Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak (left) attends a 1932 World Series game with N.Y Governor and presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt. On the right is FDR's son, James.

Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak (left) attends a 1932 World Series game with N.Y Governor and presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt. On the right is FDR’s son, James.

After the 1932 election and prior to his March 4th, 1933 inauguration, FDR decided to take a yacht-trip off the coast of Florida. Upon his return, he attended a rally in Miami to meet influential party leaders before returning to New York.

FDR’s yacht sailed into Biscayne Bay late on February 15th and he was escorted to the amphitheater bandstand at Bayfront Park. All 7000 seats in front of the stage were filled to capacity, with thousands more in the aisles and around the park. FDR was in one of three open cars that parked by the bandstand; he stayed in the car because of his polio.

In the third row of the seating area was Giuseppe Zangara, who had purchased a five shot .32 caliber revolver for eight dollars just days earlier. He was roughly twenty five or thirty feet from Roosevelt.

FDR spoke for less than one minute, and then was greeted by dignitaries. Zangara stood on his wobbly folding chair and fired five shots. Several people pinned him to the ground and he was taken off to jail. Meanwhile, the presidential procession rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital to try to save Cermak’s life. He died nineteen days after he was shot however.

President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, left, and Mayor Anton J. Cermak of Chicago as they conferred in 1933. — Chicago Tribune historical photo

President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, left, and Mayor Anton J. Cermak of Chicago as they conferred in 1933. — Chicago Tribune historical photo

Zangara was an Italian immigrant who spoke very poor English,but was very open about his desire to “kill all kings and presidents” in order to punish them for all the pain inflicted on the poor, as well as his own personal pain.

On March 20, 1933, Zangara was executed for Cermak’s murder in Florida’s “Old Sparky” electric chair, railing against capitalists to the end. When asked whether he would shoot Roosevelt again if given a chance, he answered affirmatively.

It had been exactly 33 days since the shooting in Bayfront Park to Zangara’s execution. The five weeks that culminated in the electrocution of Zangara was considered by many the swiftest legal execution in 20th-century American History.

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