Monthly Archives: September 2009

Myths of Our Founding: Carol Berkin on Teaching the Revolution

Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull.  Yale University Art Gallery

Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull. Yale University Art Gallery

Should we have revolted against the British Empire?   According to Carol Berkin, we never had it so good–as long as you were a New England merchant, a Caribbean slave trader or a tidewater planter.  That covers everybody, right?

Here at the Neighborhood, mythbusting in history has always been a key issue.  Because so much of our collective history has been built on myths created over centuries, this process is often complex, messy and controversial. 

Over the months, we’ve tackled subjects as diverse as the Boston Massacre, Native Americans, the War of 1812Civil Rights, even Jesus.  With each, it was important to strip away the veneer of the textbook to get as close to the source as possible.  Carol Berkin, University Professor of History at Baruch College and CUNY Graduate Center, does a similar job with the American Revolution in the latest issue of History Now, from the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.

Berkin does an excellent job in parsing a straightforward narrative into a complex web of conflicts, struggles and contradictions.  Upon reading her analysis, Great Britain seems less than a tyrannical imperial power and more like a rookie teacher who can’t control her students.  The British were real penny-pinchers when it came to colonial control, leaving much of the actual legwork to local assemblies that took advantage of the crown, Native Americans, and poorer backcountry farmers and townspeople. 

It was only with the French and Indian War, which left the empire broke, that Britain decided to read up on classroom management and establish some routines and procedures for effective imperial rule.  By then it was too late–the little monsters that were the 13 colonies had already dumped the hamster cage, spilled the paste on the floor and pulled the fire alarm (so to speak).  No amount of time in the woodshed was going to control this bunch.

In all, Berkin makes a great framework for upper-grade elementary, middle and high school teachers to enrich their U.S. history lessons.  Focusing on even one of her points can make a week’s worth of lessons.  Please let us know how you used this information in the classroom and comment her at the Neighborhood.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Obama of Tammany Hall: Presidential Meddling in State Politics

William M. Boss Tweed, Boss of Tammany Hall 1858-1871

William M. "Boss" Tweed, Boss of Tammany Hall 1858-1871

“He that blows the coals in quarrels that he has nothing to do with, has no right to complain if the sparks fly in his face.” – Benjamin Franklin

We hate to admit it, but local politics still carries the cigar odors and whiskey stains of generations past.

In 1868, the Democratic National Convention was held in the New York Democratic Party’s extravagant new building on 14th Street—Tammany Hall.  Tammany Hall was also the name of a fraternal society and political machine that dominated Democratic politics in New York City from the early 1800s to the 1960s.  The Hall itself was built with ill-gotten gains from extorting contracts to build the city’s new courthouse—the same place where New York’s Department of Education is housed. 

William Tweed, then boss of Tammany Hall, basically summoned the regional bosses to the Hall, ushered them into a room, and closed the door.   They left with their presidential candidate, Horatio Seymour, and that was that.  Such was the politics of the 19th Century—backroom deals, stuffing of pockets, and treacherous double-dealing.

Sometimes those old habits die hard. 

As much as our current President advocates bipartisanship and a return to principled government, the bare-knuckle brawls of the local ward heelers are never far from his mind.

Such was the case on Monday, when Barack Obama culminated weeks of machinations to pressure the widely unpopular governor of New York, David Paterson, from running in the 2010 gubernatorial election.  En route to a speech on the economy in Troy, New York, Obama gave Paterson a chilly reception at the local airport, whispering words in Dave’s ears that seemed to knock him senseless.

He then met with state Democratic leaders behind closed doors.  Paterson was not invited.  Yet what happened at the speech made me cringe.

At the speech at Troy Community College, Obama lavished praise on New York’s Attorney General—and potential 2010 candidate—Andrew Cuomo, saluting and giving praises to the presumptive candidate to the cheers of the honchos present.  It was almost like a coronation, and it happened in front of the crestfallen governor.

This display, I’m sorry to say, was petty, vulgar, tasteless and a stain on Obama’s high office.

President Obama crowning Cuomo yesterday.  Wouldnt the Boss be proud?

President Obama crowning Cuomo yesterday. Wouldn't the "Boss" be proud?

There is no doubt that the chief executive has often found itself embroiled in local politics, particularly with midterm elections around the corner.  Such was this case, where New York’s gubernatorial seat was up for grabs.  He may even need to ruffle a few feathers in the smoke-filled room to make sure his demands are met.

But insulting a sitting governor in public is an unforgivable sin and a shameful act.

No matter what the dispute, no matter how contentious the politics, the institutions of power demand respect.  I don’t agree with David Paterson.  I often don’t agree with Barack Obama.  Yet both are worthy of my respect because of the offices they hold.

David Paterson, like it or not, is the governor of the State of New York.  Andrew Cuomo is the Attorney General.   David outranks him.  Period.  End of discussion.  Paterson’s snub offends not only his person, but the state as a whole.  Woe to any other state of the Union that dares defy Obama’s plans.

Barack Obama’s actions are even more insulting given his reputation and vision for government.  In an age where transparency, legality and institutional order are necessary, Obama has reverted to the arbitrary, often brutal tactics of Chicago bosses and Tammany ward heelers. 

These are not the actions of a President of the United States.  These are the acts of William Tweed, Richard Croker, James Michael Curley, Tom Pendergast, Edwin Edwards, and Richard Daley—bosses whose actions forever haunt our democratic process.    

Regardless of your opinion on any of the principals in this affair, the office of the Presidency is not an ax used to decapitate dead weight in local elections.  It is a national bulwark that must transcend the guttural minutia of local politics. 

Mr. President, please leave the glad-handing and the ballot-stuffing to the ward bosses.  You’re too important to be mixed up in this mess.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 9/21: Benedict Arnold “Sells Out” America

HD-SN-99-01721To try to defend Benedict Arnold is a lot like being the defense lawyer at the Nuremburg trials.  Somebody has to do it, even though you know the guy’s guilty as sin.

I’m not going to sweep Arnold’s treachery under the rug–the guy did sell out the country he was defending, after all.  Yet I don’t want to paint this guy as entirely evil.  Prior to his treachery, Arnold was the most able, successful commander in the Continental Army.  Some would say he was even better than George Washington.  What Arnold did has to viewed in the lens of his times and compared to other “traitors” of the Revolution–people who’s acts do not seem that treasonous today.

Here’s the Law and Order, CSI-esque lowdown of what happened.  Since the spring of 1779, Arnold was in communication with the British forces of Sir Henry Clinton about offering his services to the Crown.  The strategic chokepoint of West Point, NY was about to be given to Arnold to command.  He gained command of the fortress on August 3, 1780, and received the offer he was negotiating for a year: the British were offering  £20,000 in exchange for the fortress.   The deal was sealed with Arnold meeting Major John Andre on Sept. 21.  However, Andre was captured two days later and the plot unraveled.  Arnold managed to slip to the British lines–even getting Washington’s permission to allow his mistress safe passage to England.  Andre was tried and hanged as a spy.  America develops a new definition for a two-timing, snake-in-the-grass son-of-a-bitch.

There’s no doubt that Arnold’s actions were a complete dick move.  West Point was the strategic point in the Hudson that opened it to Lake George, then Lake Champlain and into Canada, where British reinforcements were waiting.  His motives, too, seem to denote the whiff of an insufferable asshole.  He was pissed at being passed over for commands, and he spent his dough like a rapper at the Source Awards, which got him deep in the hole.  Yet does Arnold deserve his eternal shitpile?

Yes, but with a little less shit than was piled on before.  Also, the shit has to spread to other people.  I’m sorry, George, but you should’ve seen this coming.

The biggest charge is that Arnold committed treason against the country he defended, even suffering wounds in the service.  While I don’t doubt his brilliant service prior to the West Point affair–his actions in Saratoga saved the Revolution, for Christ’s sake–I do question his patriotism, or his commitment to the cause.  In my opinion, Arnold was never a real patriot, but rather a voraciously ambitious opportunist. 

Arnold, being a good Connecticut boy, made his living at the mercantile trade.  He made a pretty good living up until the crises of the 1760s, the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act.  Arnold continued to smuggle goods in defiance of the act, even attending local Sons of Liberty meetings.  Yet it’s hard to see this as more than self-serving: Arnold was hurt in his pockets, and his subsequent actions in the Continental Army bear out his monetary concerns. 

His military career was a quest for glory–not for liberty.  He took on daring assignments to boost his resume.  Taking Fort Ticonderoga without a shot and engineering a brilliant retreat from a failed Canadian invasion in 1776 definitely add to Arnold’s skill set. 

Then came his big project, Saratoga, a job he lobbied for relentlessly.  Washington went with Horatio Gates, against the wishes of Arnold and others who saw Gates as a British-trained sissy.  The battle bore this out: Gates was playing safe with a fortified position against British, Canadian and German mercenary forces.   Arnold defied Gates by leading a headlong charge into the British lines with three regiments at a dead run, a bold move that broke the lines and bust open a gap to the Canadian and German reinforcements.  The lobsterbacks didn’t have a chance: John Burgoyne and the entire northern British army surrenders to Gates. 

So why the beef with the Continentals?  Money and glory.  Arnold was constantly getting passed over for promotions he felt he deserved–including Saratoga, which he actually did deserve.  Furthermore, he was owed money from the Continental Congress since his expeditions were paid mostly out of his own pocket–but many of the generals did the same thing, including Washington.  It also didn’t help that as military governor of Philadelphia in 1778, he lived high on the hog and took on a high-maintenance mistress with Loyalist sympathies. 

If Arnold was a true patriot from the beginning, I could see the treason much clearer.  The fact is, the military victories blinded the Continental commanders to Arnold’s clear personality flaws.  He was an overachieving prick with a lust for money and power.  No one should have given him command of a pisspot, let alone West Point.  Since the 1760s, his quest was for personal fame and fortune, and he showed absolutely no inclination that the patriot cause meshed with his own philosophy.

Arnold was not the only traitor with a need for cash.  Benjamin Church was the doctor for the Massachusetts militia, later the Continental army, during the opening months of the Revolution in 1775.  During that time, and also to get out of a hole, he was sending secret information to British general Thomas Gage, including troop movements.  He was caught and managed to slip on a ship, never to be seen again. 

Robert Rogers, an American ranger who served brilliantly during the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763, offered his services to the Continentals.  It didn’t help that the Congress offered him a commission and was rebuffed, stating that he was a British officer.  His drinking didn’t help, either.  Washington had him arrested rather than risk his person causing havoc.  Rogers would subsequently raise a gang of loyalist guerrillas that would capture American spy Nathan Hale in 1776, obstentsibly by pretending that Rogers was a patriot spy, too.  Even today, the US Army names its pioneer divisions Rangers, after Rogers, who worked against the Americans.

So it’s probably best to cut Arnold some slack, but not a whole lot.  His treachery succeeded not because of some inherent feeling of loyalty to Great Britain, but because the people around him could not see the amoral nature of his actions.  He was but one of many American turncoats in the Revolutionary period, and most of them were turncoats for reasons far more reasoned than Arnold.

In short, Arnold’s story teaches us that it’s good to tolerate a bastard if he’s an earner.  If he gets a little grabby, though, it’s time to cut him loose.

George Washington’s kicking himself right now.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized