Archive for category Public History
If it’s true that all politics is local, could the same be said about history? Maybe all history is not exactly local, but it does seem to be the portal through which many of us enter the past, whether it is tracing our genealogy, researching our house, visiting nearby museums, sites or roadside markers.
For me, moving to a new town and exploring its history helped me learn my way around, finding out who streets were named after and poring over old maps to see the evolution of the town as if it were the old computer game SimCity. Local history became one of my social circles, where I met and interacted with professionals and lay people with similar interests.
There is much that is unique about Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the largest city of Berkshire County, nestled in its rolling hills in the far west of the state. Beyond the social and the curious, did the history of this place speak to a broader view of national or international events, did it speak to current concerns?
There is much that is unique about any town or city, but delving into Pittsfield’s history reveals evidence of broader national trends and developments, how decisions taken and events played out far away affected people right here at home. More than that, the history of this place may also speak to broader concerns of the present.
These lessons gradually dawned on me in preparing the exhibit, “Turning Points,” on display at the Berkshire Athenaeum as part of the winter 10×10 Upstreet Arts Festival held every year coinciding with school vacation in February.
Flip through any U.S. history textbook, and broad themes play out in this locale: early arrival and encounter with Native Americans, taming the frontier, rebellion against colonial authorities, industrial revolution, division over slavery, immigration and labor unrest, economic panics and technological progress, international trade and empire, the arsenal of democracy, postwar global dominance, industrial decline and loss of jobs and population.
Through these developments, these turning points, Pittsfield has adjusted and adapted, evolved and reinvented itself. The city finds itself in such a phase now, seeking to shape a future that provides opportunity and enhanced quality of life for its residents.
What strikes me about the current moment is that Pittsfield is really not all that different from many post-industrial towns and cities extending across the northeast into the Midwest. What is different, though, has been in this region’s rejection of a politician like Donald Trump in favor of his opponent. Trump’s messages of xenophobia, dark pessimism of carnage, and wild promises of jobs returning from overseas fell on fertile ground further west, but not here.
What in Pittsfield’s history accounts for this difference? History tells us of multiple waves of immigrants coming to this region, instilling an ethnic pride and diversity here that makes us more likely to welcome the newcomers from Latin America and Africa in our midst. History tells of past economic transformations, from agriculture to manufacturing, from textiles to electrical, plastics and defense industries that may point the way towards openness and experimentation to find the next stage of economic growth. History tells us that proximity to New York and Boston was important, continuing to today, less as markets for goods produced here, but as a source for visitors who come here seeking cultural and outdoor escapes.
Last summer, I met a young woman visiting Pittsfield from Youngstown, Ohio, and I asked her to compare the differences between these two rust belt cities. She was quick in her answer: “You have so much here. We have nothing.” A harsh statement, but a welcome one of how our home town looks to an outsider.
Read an article on the exhibit in the Berkshire Eagle.
Or you can read the panels right here: Turning Points, 10×10 Upstreet Arts Festival
What is it about passing an old mill building that pushes me off to some other world? I pause, take a second look and a third, fourth, and more, drawn in by the features of the bell tower and stairways, the small design additions to the windows, doors and roofs. Then my gaze wanders, looking for nearby streams and crossings, homes and paths.
Surely, the easy answer to the appeal would be the size and sturdiness of the buildings, made of brick and stone to withstand the pounding of the machinery and the risk of fire. They don’t tower over the landscape as much as they dominate it. Aerial views and maps show just how much space they occupy in a neighborhood, easy to pick out and get your bearings, in search of an old house or store.
The simple engineering behind raising such a structure had to be, in fact, anything but simple, especially without the mechanization and materials that go into modern construction. Add to that the number of mills in Berkshire County which reaches well into the hundreds, and the speed which they went up, or were later added on to and altered to make full use of new equipment.
Curiosity cannot be satisfied. How did they bring the heavy iron equipment into the mills? How did people learn to operate the machinery? How were people hired and what were employers looking for in selecting the operators? How would they move one processed item completed on the second floor, up to the next stage on the third floor? How did they find their markets, and get their products to them?
But the wonder of the mill really comes from imagining the stories, of the people who heard the bells, hustled along the paths, made their way to their spots at the machines, stood by them and repeated the same motions for up to twelve hours a day. I realize that I probably wouldn’t, couldn’t last a week.
Ten years ago, I bought a house in Pittsfield, before I realized that my neighbor was an old mill, that a canal and reservoir that fed water to power the mill ran so close to my windows that I could hear the rushing water at night. I could likely have heard the mill bell from my window, as did those who inhabited my house 100 years ago, sending them down some path long since grown over to get to work on time.
All this propelled me to put together a book, of historic photos, architectural drawings and maps which give a glimpse into that world. Enjoy the dream.
You can find a copy through Arcadia Publishing.
Recently, I received in the mail a notice from the city of Pittsfield that, as a member of the Pittsfield Historical Commission, I had to complete my annual review of conflict of interest rules and laws.
Dropping off the signed form at the city clerk’s office gave me pause: why would I, a volunteer member on a small municipal commission, be subject to conflict of interest rules and regulations, but not the President of the United States?
On the one hand, it’s discouraging that it’s even necessary to remind people that service such as mine is not to enrich oneself, but to fulfill objectives on behalf of a larger community. As a public servant for almost 40 years, I have had to abide by the many conflict of interest rules and laws, such as filling out financial disclosure forms and refusing gifts over $50 from any foreign entity.
On the other hand, though, I do understand the need for promoting the public’s trust and confidence in the institutions that serve them and in the people who run those institutions. The motivations in making decisions should be based on the merits of the issue at hand, weighing the benefits and costs to the greater public. We are, after all, human and susceptible to temptation, so such rules and laws are needed to draw the lines clearly for public servants. On more than one occasion over the course of my career, I had cause to refer to the Office of Government Ethics to get a ruling on situations that arose within our work.
I also had good role models. Our Ambassador to Canada, and former Governor of Massachusetts, the late Paul Cellucci, beamed when he showed off the high-end driver he received from the professional golfer Vijay Singh, but he also quickly went to his checkbook to reimburse the cost of the club. Singh earned his visa renewal at the Embassy on his own merit, not on the gift of a golf club.
Here in Pittsfield, it does not take much research to uncover past dealings that jar our 2016 sensibilities regarding strict separation of business dealings with public service. In the early 1800s, the first Berkshire County mill operators appealed to their Congressman in Washington, Henry Shaw, to support a tariff to raise the price of the imported goods, and help their products compete. A supporter of Henry Clay’s “American System” that included a tariff on imports, Shaw voted for its passage in 1824. The next year, Shaw (who happened to be Josh Billings’ father) took full advantage of the tariff he helped pass when he led a group of investors to buy land south of Pontoosuc Lake and build a woolen mill, the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill. The national politician Henry Clay returned the favor to Shaw whom he visited on a trip to the Berkshires that, naturally, included a tour of his mill.
Thirty years later, another politician, Thomas Allen, the grandson of the Congregational minister who helped recruit soldiers during the Revolutionary War, moved to Missouri where he made a fortune as an early railroad builder, becoming President of the Pacific Railroad in 1850. The same year, he won election as a state senator and used that position to secure land grants from the state legislature for his railroad. Allen kept his ties to Pittsfield, and used some of his fortune from the railroad business to make the initial large donation to establish the Berkshire Athenaeum on Park Square in 1876.
It would have been right for citizens to question whether the tariff that Shaw voted for was in the country’s best interests or Shaw’s? Likewise, was Allen serving the people of Missouri in promoting the construction of railroads or his own business interests? Examples like these led to laws enacted as early as the Civil War that made it a crime “for Members of Congress and Officers of the Government of the United States from Taking Considerations for Procuring Contracts, Office or Place from the United States.” Civil service reform followed in 1883 and, the law that set up the Office of Government Ethics was passed in 1978 in the wake of Watergate when public confidence in the integrity of government dipped to all-time lows. The new law laid out the rules and penalties relating to financial disclosure, acceptance of gifts, outside earned income and post-government employment, among others.
Massachusetts passed its first conflict of interest law fifteen years before the federal law governing state and municipal employees. Once the federal law was passed though, Massachusetts set up its own ethics commission and added a financial disclosure requirement for political candidates and state employees in “major policy-making positions.”
Our incoming President-elect is legally correct in stating that the 1978 federal law exempted the President and Vice-President from the conflict of interest requirements. That exemption had more to do with concerns over restricting the President’s ability to have the full range of options in the course of carrying out his duties.
The legal exemption, though, is not the same as Donald Trump’s claim that “a President can’t have a conflict of interest.” Being “legally exempt” is not the kind of statement that builds public confidence in its government and institutions. The line is blurred between his vast empire of business holdings and the decisions he will have to make on, for example, tax reform or foreign relations with countries where he conducts business. Former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray (a Republican) agrees that “presidents should conduct themselves as if conflict of interest laws apply to them.” He was elected, after all, with a promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, so he really needs to start by leading by example.
Over the next few years, the public will undoubtedly learn more than it ever imagined about the intricacies of conflict of interest law, picking up terms like “nepotism” and “emoluments.” Unless, of course, the incoming President takes the steps needed to ensure the line between his personal assets and the public interest is not blurred. That’s the wall he should build.
It’s what every public servant does.
My first Moby Dick Marathon. It had been several years since I learned of this event where the book is read aloud from cover to cover each year at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. After conflicts ruled out prior attendance, my wife and I finally resolved to participate this year, the 20th anniversary of the marathon.
And it was worth it, in so many ways.
No, I did not listen to every word, in fact only about four or five hours. But, when the museum handed out certificates to those who did sit through all 25 hours, the line looked to be easily over 50 people.
While not reading, we attended two sessions to chat with Melville scholars who covered a wide ranging array of subjects from the many-layered and evolving interpretations of the novel to their own personal accounts of encountering Melvlle and how their study has shaped their lives. Of interest to those of us at Arrowhead was the discussion on how Melville spent his first year in Pittsfield re-working his book. In his letters, we were told, he anticipated finishing his book about the whale by the fall of 1850, but after meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne and moving to Pittsfield, he spent another year working on the book. One scholar told us that were it not for that year at Arrowhead, we would not have been attending the marathon, for it would have likely been another of the books Melville turned out to help finance the expenses of his growing family. We also spent a fair amount of discussion time on the difficulty of the book, and how students today react to it.
The reading shifted away from the exhibit hall twice. First, we moved across the street to read (and sing) the chapters that took place in the Seamen’s Bethel. Melville includes the words of a hymn in Chapter 7, so we all sang it, and then listened to Father Mapple read his sermon on Jonah.
The second time, we moved to the auditorium to watch a dramatic presentation of Chapter 40, Melville’s play within his novel of life on the deck of the Pequod.
My own ten minutes of reading took place at the civilized time of 7:50 on Sunday morning, almost 20 hours since they started reading. To my surprise there were quite a number of people present. The organizers had written saying this time would put my reading in or about Chapter 104, one on Melville’s description of whale size. The references to Barbary travelers and Egyptian temples caused me to trip over the words, but one quote reminded me of why Melville may have included such details as the size of the whales: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”
Many of the people present seemed to be teachers, but there were also people like Amalia, a Venezuelan who we sat with at lunch and who read her ten minutes in Spanish. Amalia had fallen in love with Melville after coming to the U.S.. She visited Arrowhead this past fall on her quest to know more about the author and the book she had read many times. In fact, others read in French, Japanese, Chinese, German, Dutch, Swedish and too many more to remember. For the first time, five hours in a parallel session was set aside for Portuguese reading. Other readers included Nathaniel Philbrick who kicked off the event and several descendants of Melville. I met many people who go every year.
The hall was packed for the final chapters, and the applause when the Epilogue concluded seemed to never end.
What sticks most in my mind from the weekend was the sense that there’s always something new in Melville. One university teacher said there’s a lot of repetition in academia, and scholars enjoy teaching Melville because each time they read him they discover a new layer, a new way to “enter the book,” whether through the environment, through race or gender, or politics. He seems to reach across the generations and speak to current concerns.
Perhaps it is time to reconsider Herman Melville, not for the whale, but for his social commentary that speaks to us across generations in this Presidential campaign season. Melville will return to the news in the next few weeks following the release of the much promoted Ron Howard movie “In the Heart of the Sea,” the account of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex that inspired Moby Dick. As Americans, we grow up knowing the broad parameters of Melville’s tale (not tail), even if we never made it past the first chapter. Ahab’s chasing the white whale is part of our cultural DNA, shorthand for an obsessive, disastrous pursuit.
Embedded into this novel, written in Pittsfield shortly after Melville moved here in 1850, though, is the story of Ishmael, the sailor-narrator, and Queequeg, the tattooed, heathen Polynesian harpooner who was peddling shrunken heads when Ishmael first met him. The novel begins with the two sharing a room (and, as was routine in the early 1800s for men of little means, a bed.) Initially terrified of Queequeg, Ishmael concludes that “The man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.” Melville’s summation reaches across 175 years with a pointed rebuke of politics following the San Bernadino shooting after Thanksgiving: “Ignorance is the parent of fear.”
As Melville was writing these lines, he was surrounded by an outburst of nativism, of anti-foreign and anti-Catholic sentiment in Massachusetts, where a new, secret society was gaining adherents: the Know-Nothings. That anti-party political order bequeathed the nation one of the most colorful but also confounding names, opening up the obvious line of inquiry – who would want to be associated with a movement that embraces ignorance in its title?
The Know Nothing name emerged not from a desire to be equated with stupidity, but from the secretive nature of its early days when adherents were instructed to answer questions about the order by saying they “know nothing.” Following their success in several state political elections in 1854, they gave themselves the respectable official title, the American Party, but the Know Nothing name given to them by outsiders had already stuck.
In 2015, the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates seems to drawing for their playbooks a page from the 1850s and the Know Nothings. They are drawing on several themes and tactics from the 19th century movement, most notably anti-immigration and the rejection of traditional politics. The third pillar of the Know Nothings, anti-Catholicism, could easily be updated using the “replace all” function on a computer, substituting in the word Muslim for the earlier threat to Protestant values.
One Know Nothing member, Henry Wilson, who was elected as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, relayed the 1850s playbook, describing the secret order whose “professed purpose was to check foreign influence, purify the ballot box and rebuke the effort to exclude the Bible from the public schools.” The societies that fed into the political movement bore their anti-immigrant leanings in their names: Sons of America, the American Protestant Association, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, and the Order of United Americans. Members took oaths, according to a national convention in November 1854, to “not vote for any man for any office…unless he be an American-born citizen.” If elected or appointed to any office, the member would “remove all foreigners, aliens of Roman Catholics from office or place.”
The nativism of the Know Nothings crept over into an overarching contempt for politicians, in reaction to a perceived increase of immigrants and Catholics in politics. The movement then saw its greatest growth spurt in a period of generalized dissatisfaction with the inability of both parties to deal with the major issues of the time. Failure of the Whigs in the Presidential elections of 1854 and the only temporary resolution of the slavery issue in 1850 left a vacuum in the two-party system, leading quickly to the disappearance of the Whig party . New issues such as temperance and the length of the working day emerged but were left untended.
Tactically, the Know Nothings focused their attention at the state and municipal levels of electoral politics drawing on their secret organizations to mobilize voters to head to the polls and reject traditional politicians. They were most successful here in Massachusetts, when voters in 1854 swept into office Henry J. Gardiner as Governor and nearly all 400 races for the senate and house of representatives. Races from Maine to Louisiana and California saw gains from Know Nothing candidates, moving Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts to state “There has been no revolution so complete since the organization of government.” Adherents replaced professional politicians, most evidenced in Massachusetts by the influx of clergymen replacing lawyers in elected positions.
The parallels to 2015 resound – anti-immigration in the rhetoric of “deny entry to all Muslims” and “build a wall;” anti-political parties in the rhetoric of “I am not Washington’s candidate;” secret political organizations in the fund-raising behind super-PACs; the tactics of state and local mobilizing paying off in gerrymandered and now permanently safe electoral districts in the House of Representatives; the “purity of the ballot box” in the attempted legislated election restrictions making it harder for minorities to cast their ballot.
One aspect of the current version, though, does not track with its earlier model. While the 1850s movement did not embrace a lack of knowledge, the 2015 version can lay claim to the connotations of ignorance in Know-ing Nothing, especially when one of the candidates derides the field for its “fantasy” policy proposals. Ohio Governor John Kasich seemed to be mimicking another one-time candidate, former Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindahl, who, in 2013, urged Republicans to “stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.” Instead of answering they “know nothing” when asked a tough question, the candidates resort to an attack on the questioner, for his or her audacity, unfairness or meanness. Knowing nothing or very little can extend to other statements: listing five cabinet departments for elimination that included naming the same department twice; the unwillingness to walk back claims of thousands of people from New Jersey cheering the collapse of the World Trade Towers on September 11; the claim that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen in this country since slavery.
By spouting ignorance, this year’s crop of politicians is making good on Melville’s dictum of delivering fear. In considering all they advocate, though, that might just be the up side. In fact, they could be driving the ship of state in pursuit of a white whale, with its disastrous ending.