To a small slice of history from my home of Santa Fe, originally posted on my personal blog. Hope my faithful readers–all six of you–enjoy it.
My first book for adults is now in bookstores everywhere! Or at least in Minnesota! But it’s definitely available on Amazon and through the publisher. The title: Famous Crimes of Minnesota (hence its availability in the Gopher State).
True crime is not part of my usual oeuvre (assuming I even have one…), but an editor I worked with before pitched the idea, I didn’t have much else going on at that time, and it’s always fun to learn something new. And I got a trip to Minnesota out of it, which led to this earlier post.
Additionally, I will make royalties off the book—theoretically—which is pretty unusual for me, since most of my stuff is done work-for-hire. So please, buy the book so I can make the mortgage payments on my new house (an experienced chronicled here and here at my other blog, A Year in Santa Fe) for at least a few months.
And to pique your curiosity, here’s an excerpt, about the famous Northfield Raid, which led to the demise of the James-Younger gang.
In the years after the Civil War, the legend of Jesse James and his outlaw gang filled newspapers and served as the inspiration for poems and songs. James helped create the legend himself, writing letters to newspapers in between his crimes, sometimes denying them, other times painting himself as a Robin Hood who gave his ill-gotten gains to the poor. (Of course, he and those who made him into some sort of folk hero ignored the fact that the stolen money often belonged to hard-working common people, and not the “one percent” of the day.)
In 1876, James, his brother Frank, and the rest of their gang ventured out of their usual area for committing crimes. They targeted the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, with politics as well as money in mind. The gang heard that Adelbert Ames, former governor of Mississippi, and his father-in-law General Benjamin Butler had just deposited $75,000 in the bank. Ames had recently moved to Northfield to take over his aging father’s flour mill. The deposit though, may have just have been a rumor, as some say it never occurred.
To the James gang, the two Northerners were justifiable targets for robbery, given their treatment of Southerners during and after the Civil War. Most of the gang had fought under William Quantrill, leader of Quantrill’s Raiders, an infamous Confederate group that carried out guerrilla warfare in Kansas and nearby states. To James and the others, Ames was a carpetbagger who represented the Radical Reconstruction carried out by vengeful Republicans. Butler, in the mind of Cole Younger, was especially deserving of being robbed, after his harsh treatment of the citizens of New Orleans during the war. Younger later wrote, “We felt little compunction, under the circumstances, about raiding him or his.”
How much politics motivated all the James-Younger gang’s crimes has stirred some historical debate. T.J. Stiles writes in his biography of Jesse James that the outlaw’s reign of robbery and terror and was part of a calculated effort to restore Confederate power in the defeated South. Other historians downplay politics and see a thug who, like many thugs before and since, let greed and a thirst for public attention fuel his deeds. Minnesota may have been targeted in 1876 because the heat from law enforcement was too intense for them back at their home base of Missouri. And as in many criminal tales, the Northfield heist might have been the mythical “last big score”; Cole Younger said the proceeds would let the gang “start life anew in Cuba, South America, or Australia.”
The Northfield Raid in particular plays a significant part in the James’ saga, since it marked the end of the gang—though not the end of Jesse’s crimes. And in an odd twist, there is no direct evidence that the James brothers even took part! In his accounts of the crime, Cole Younger never mentions either by name, and the brothers never admitted they were there. But the detailed historical retellings of the crime place the James brothers in Minnesota in the days leading up to the crime, and few doubt their role in the Northfield Raid.
Not According to Plan
The gang began arriving in Minneapolis around August 23, 1876. Some checked into the Nicollet Hotel under assumed names, and there are reports of Jesse visiting a local bordello. Two others stayed at the Merchant’s Hotel in St. Paul. Over the next days, the gang hatched its plan, counting on the knowledge of their one Minnesotan, Bill Chadwell, to help them navigate their routes. Within a few days, the eight-member gang split into two groups and began heading out to scout the area around Northfield. Talking to a local farmer just outside the targeted town, one of the gang commented, “Why, according to your statement of the Northfield people, a very few men so inclined could capture the town.” The farmer agreed, perhaps giving the hardened robbers an even greater sense of confidence than usual.
By September 6, Cole Younger’s group was in Millersburg, 11 miles west of Northfield, while the rest of the gang was at Cannon City. The next day, they rendezvoused in Northfield. The plan was to send three men into the bank first—most likely the James brothers and Charlie Pitts, with Younger and Clell Miller to follow. The other three would stay at a nearby bridge. The men outside the bank were to keep the streets clear and scare off any would-be heroes while the others carried out the robbery.
From the start, however, the plan went awry. The three men assigned to go inside went in too early, before Cole and Miller reached the bank door to stand guard. When they did reach their position, local hardware store owner J. S. Allen was about to go inside. After Miller ordered him to turn around, Allen took off, shouting, “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbing the bank.” The townspeople would heed the call.
Meanwhile, inside the bank, things were also deviating from the plan. The robbers had entered with their usual bravado, shouting their intention to rob the bank and warning everyone inside, “If you hallo we will blow your God-damned brains out.” When learning the head cashier wasn’t there to open the safe, the gang turned to assistant cashier Joseph Heywood. But as Heywood explained, the safe was on a time lock and he couldn’t open it. Seeing that the door to the vault was open, one of the bandits entered it. Heywood quickly shut the door, trapping him inside—and unleashing the fury of the remaining two robbers.
Heywood soon felt cold steel on his neck, the blade of a knife one of the robbers wielded. “Open that door or we’ll cut you from ear to ear,” the bandit said. Heywood, a seasoned Civil War vet himself, broke free, but soon absorbed the blow of a revolver crashing against his head. The robbers continued to demand money, and one fired his gun. In the ongoing confusion, bank teller Alonzo Bunker tried to make a break for the door, and was shot in the shoulder for his attempted escape. Wounded, he managed to get outside, where more mayhem was unfolding.
The Gang Takes Flight
At almost the same the first bullet was fired inside the bank, Cole Younger set off a warning shot, to alert the gang members back at the bridge that the robbery was going wrong. Jim Younger and his cohorts at the bridge quickly reached the bank, firing their guns and telling the townspeople to go back inside their homes. But the people of Northfield were not about to let anyone, even the Cole-Younger gang, disrupt life in their town without a fight. Resident Elias Stacy had arrived on the scene with a shotgun, and its blast caught Clell Miller in the face. Manning, the hardware store owner, killed one of the robbers’ horses. A second shot from his gun hit Cole Younger in the thigh; a third proved fatal to Bill Chadwell, piercing his heart. Meanwhile, a bullet from medical student Henry Wheeler’s gun finished off Miller, while another wounded Bob Younger.
The men inside the bank finally came out, but not before one of them killed assistant cashier Heywood. T. J. Stiles speculates it was Jesse James who pulled the trigger, while Cole Younger later claimed it was Charlie Pitts. No one knows for sure. Whoever killed him, a newspaper reported that Heywood was left “with his brain and blood oozing slowly from his right temple.” Outside, along with the two dead robbers was Nicholas Gustavson, a bystander who was hit in the shootout and would soon die from his wound.
As Northfield residents surveyed the scene around the bank, the six remaining gang members began their flight. They had no time to destroy the local telegraph office, so news of the attempted robbery and their escape spread quickly. So did the offer of a reward from Minnesota governor John S. Pillsbury—$1,000 for each man, dead or alive.
At first the gang managed to outrun the news of their crime, passing through Dundas and Millersburg unchallenged. Outside Shieldsville, though, they exchanged shots with local residents who realized who they were. As the gang moved on, they reached unfamiliar territory. As Cole Younger wrote, “When we got into the big woods and among the lakes we were practically lost.” They moved slowly at times, stopping to treat Bob Younger’s shattered elbow, and abandoning their horses since the posse would be looking for men on horseback. They trudged on through the rain, at one point encountering a man named Dunning. Some of the gang wanted to kill him. Instead they let him go after making him promise not to tell authorities the gang’s whereabouts. Dunning agreed, but then almost immediately broke his promise when he reached Mankato.
Still eluding capture after a week on the run, the gang decided to split up. Cole Younger, in his account, says Howard and Woods left the other four. T. J. Stiles says it was Frank and Jesse James who separated from the gang, stealing horses and beginning their getaway to the Dakota Territory. They sometimes went by the aliases of Howard and Woodson. Along the way, both men were wounded by buckshot, but they managed to escape capture.
Cole Younger had directed the others to Madelia, where he thought they could get horses. Cole, who had stayed in the town before the heist, was spotted by a resident who recognized him, and soon another posse was after them. The posse cut them off from reaching the horses and the four robbers retreated into some bushes. Hearing a small contingent of the posse preparing to attack, the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts readied for a charge of their own. As bullets flew, Pitts fell dead, shot through the heart. Each Younger was wounded, and Bob called out, “I surrender. They’re all down but me….I’ll not shoot.” Sheriff James Glispin ordered his men to stand down, and later assured Younger that the posse would protect them from a rumored lynch mob. “But the only mob that came,” Younger wrote, “was the mob of sightseers, reporters, and detectives.”
Trial and Prison
In jail in Madelia, the Youngers had a string of visitors: reporters, Christian women seeking to save their souls, people bearing gifts of food and cigars. At one point, Cole Younger blamed his life of crime on his military service, and explained the Northfield robbery as revenge on the state for gambling losses the gang had suffered in St. Paul.
The trio was moved to the jail at Faribault, and in November 1876, the Younger brothers were formally indicted on four counts: the murders of Heywood and Gustavson, the assault on Bunker, and the robbery itself. Cole Younger maintained that he and his brothers had killed no one. Their lawyers said that as accessories to the crimes, they could face the death penalty, unless they pled guilty. The Youngers took their lawyers’ advice and each was sentenced to life at Stillwater State Prison.
Bob Younger served almost 13 years at Stillwater, dying there in 1889. His brothers, both before and after his death, held a variety of jobs. For a time, Cole was the prison librarian, and for about a decade was the head nurse at the hospital. Cole reported that the doctors he met were “staunch partisans…in the efforts of our friends to secure our pardons.”
The efforts of others inside and outside the prison won Jim and Cole Younger their release in 1901. Soon after his release, Cole Younger told a reporter he had “reached the limit of my capacity for taking punishment.” But unlike Jesse James, at least he had survived his punishment. Jesse had been shot dead in 1882. Frank meanwhile, teamed up with his old partner Cole for a legitimate pursuit. In 1903 they launched a show called the “The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West.”
Another post for the Bloomberg Echoes blog, this one in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act.
And the struggle continues…
For the last several months, for two hours a week, I have been locked in a soundproof room with James K. Polk. Yes, that Polk: 11th President, architect of the war with Mexico, subject of a They Might Be Giants Song (alas, to my ear, not one of their best efforts; I suppose they thought the obscurity of the subject was good enough. Me, I would have gone for Millard Fillmore).
OK, I am not actually locked into that little booth. And of course Mr. Polk has been dead for some 160 years. What I am doing is recording his diary for the New Mexico State Library’s division for the blind. It’s very similar to the volunteer gig I did a few years ago in Chicago, with one main difference. There, we read books requested by our clients, and multiple readers did one book. Here, it’s one reader, one book. And the readers choose the books to record.
Yes, that’s right, I chose to read aloud Polk: The Diary of a President 1845 1849 (edited and annotated by esteemed historian Allan Nevins), thinking some hearing-impaired person might be longing to share in its wonders too.
Gotta keep those History Nerd bona fides up.
Actually, the diary makes some sense for our library. We try to focus on books that have some appeal to Southwestern clients, and what could be more relevant than getting the perspective of the president who brought much of that region into the Union? And it seemed right up my alley to choose something that would give me new insight into one of our presidents—perhaps a bit of a controversial one—given my role at Biographers International Organization (here’s a sample of the newsletter I edit, for the curious). Finally, if I’m gonna read a book out loud, it might as well be about history, since that is my vocation.
I say Polk is controversial because as a champion of manifest destiny at the expense of Mexico, he seems to have tapped early on some of the imperialist impulses that truly emerged some 50 years later, and there was a chauvinistic element in his attitude toward the Mexicans. And of course he was all for letting slavery expand into America’s newly gained Western lands. Or am I wrong?
In his introduction, Nevins offers a historiographical view of Polk that dismisses earlier claims such as those. He says an “anti-slavery interpretation of the Mexican War” led late 19th-century historians to paint Polk as a conqueror marked by “Machiavellian adroitness” who lied to Congress—or suppressed facts, as Nevins puts it, to get a war with Mexico he already wanted. Not so, Nevins claims: Polk was honest and conscientious, if stiff and mediocre, and not capable of “deceit and double dealing.” (Of course, there is this observation of Polk from a contemporary political adversary, John Quincy Adams, who called him a “slaveholding exterminator of Indians.”)
Nevins wrote in 1952; later historians were more apt to side with their 19th-century brethren in assessing Polk’s aims and attitudes. After all, he ran on a Democratic platform in 1844 that was staunchly expansionist. Still, as one college textbook from 2000 notes, war was not inevitable with Mexico; Polk just “made decisions and carried them out in ways that exacerbated already existing tensions and made war difficult to avoid.” In the end, the authors claim, Polk was lucky things turned out as well as they did, but many of the gains he sought—primarily California and the Rio Grande as a border with Mexico—might have been obtained without a war that killed 50,000 Mexicans and left many others under the rule of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon nation that disdained them.
H. W. Brands, writing in 2002 (The Age of Gold) emphasizes that California was the prize Polk truly craved. He asked Mexico to sell the land; when it refused, Brands says, “Polk determined to take California by force.” Not a vote for casting the Mexican War as an accidental conflict, I don’t think. And, apropos of the Adams’ description quoted above, the 2003 work Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre, shows how Polk’s Southern roots and slave holdings shaped his pro-slavery political views, including support for the gag rule in the House.
So what does the Polk diary reveal about the man? To be fair, I’m only about halfway through, but he does come across as someone who knows his “private” words will be read by others (as surely all president have for generations, if not all the way back to Washington). He also also endured something modern presidents I’m sure are glad to be done with: entertaining complete strangers who come to the White House seeking handouts and loans. Not government money, mind you, but Polk’s personal funds. Perhaps that’s what made him seem so humorless, except when recounting his exasperation with Congressmen and others seeking political favors (so glad that practice has ended). He also seemed to keep close track of personal and political slights, sometimes impugning the motives of those who disagreed with him, showing some of the self-righteousness and pettiness he has been criticized for by some historians.
I don’t particularly like the Polk who emerges from his own words, but that probably reflects my biases. But like anyone else, he has his high and low moments. He condemns one Protestant minister seeking a chaplaincy in the army for his “abuse of Catholics and…fanaticism,” and he made a personal loan of $100 in gold to a Congressman, even as he deplored the man’s descent into alcoholism (the lawmaker soon after killed himself, leaving Polk to comment on the “melancholy” of intemperance). Yet Polk also had derogatory views of the Mexicans (though not an uncommon stance for Americans of the day), and he found it amusing when a Portuguese diplomat gave a “solemn account” of the queen of Portugal’s miscarriage. Huh?
I’ve seen several sources that say at one time Polk was often included in historians’ lists of the top ten presidents, primarily, I assume, because of the huge expansion of the country that went down on his watch. A 2010 poll I found still had him highly ranked, at #12. So, as I keep reading and recording, I’ll try to keep an open mind about Young Hickory.
And dead last in that survey? Andrew Johnson. I don’t think I’ll be reading his diary any time soon.
I may be a History Nerd, but I proved today in spades that I am not the smartest researcher. I’m writing this from Minneapolis, where I’m gathering information for a new book. A few months ago back in my office, doing some preliminary research online, I became convinced that the Internet and the books I had found would not be enough—or at least “authentic” enough, whatever the hell I meant by that—so I planned a trip to the Twin Cities to dig into the primary sources.
I’ve worked with primary sources before, of course. Back in college, I spent countless hours at the microfilm machine, poring over old Hartford Courants and government documents for papers on immigration, among other topics. For my first bio, on Madeleine Albright, done while she was still serving in the Clinton administration, I made requests to Colorado libraries for clippings about her father’s academic career, and trekked into NYC to look at her dissertation. (I tracked down a sibling too, hoping for an interview, but word had already come down from on high: No talking to the media. But it’s for a kids’ book I explained. Still no dice. So heartless.) Then there was the train trip from Chicago down to beautiful Carbondale, home of SIU, where I went through some of the paper of Victoria Woodhull, spiritualist, advocate of free love, first American to publish Marx’s Communist Manifesto in English, presidential candidate almost 40 years before all American women could vote (with Frederick Douglass as her running mate), first woman to crack the male-dominated world of Wall Street. The work was for a historical drama still unwritten.
So, I am no stranger to archival research, if not exactly a master of it, as some of my colleagues in BIO are. But I was not prepared for the sense of “WTF am I doing here?” that crept up through me as I approached the desk of the library at the Minnesota Historical Society (an aside—the facilities there, which include a history museum, are stunning. I am not a state historical society maven, but I would bet few states have something that rival what the North Star State has.)
Yes, despite my usual attention to detail and planning, I got there today—the only day I could go, since the library is closed on Sunday and Monday, something else I failed to explore in my usual OCD-like way—and I really didn’t know what I wanted. Thankfully, I knew there was one collection of research material there I couldn’t find anywhere else, and I blurted out its name.
OK, the librarian said, which box?
Which box? Now I really felt out of my element. I imagined all the BIO folks snickering a bit. I made a stab, wrote Box 4 on the slip, and waited for the staff to wheel out a box. My random choice wasn’t totally bad; I actually found some folders with some useful information. But before I could go through it all, I had to leave for a semi-hokey bus tour related to my subject. All right, BIO bastards, stop laughing. I know: Like you could get any useful information for a serious history book from a—bus tour! Well, I like to have an idea of the geography of places I’m writing about, and while the book is about all of Minnesota, a lot of the action takes place in St. Paul. So I headed to the Wabasha St. caves, not far from the Mississippi, and let myself be driven around and lectured to for two hours.
I doubt, though, that most people would call it a lecture. The tour guide was more about schtick, though there was some substance. And without that little excursion, I wouldn’t have learned about Summit Avenue, supposedly home to more Victorian mansions than any other street in the country and to authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. And there were a few tidbits I heard along the way that might prove useful. I had been hoping for pictures that might be appropriate too, though that was a bust (the gray sky and fog didn’t help with that either).
The tour over, I went back to the historical society to finish going through my box. There was little useful left, but also not enough time to get another box, so I headed back to the hotel with only one brief detour—to buy some beer. I needed it.
Tomorrow, it’s back to the research, though this time to one of the libraries at the University of Minnesota. I doubt there will be boxes of material to comb through, but at least I can access old copies of the local newspapers that aren’t available online. Maybe. You see, I didn’t think through that part of this research adventure too well either. But that’s what makes it an adventure—and me less than a professional historian. But I will muddle through the book, and I’m sure it will be fine. And if all goes well, there may be another book on the same topic. So this time next year, look for the befuddled-looking guy stumbling around the Wisconsin Historical Society library.
No new post today from Santa Fe (though there is lots a-cookin’; maybe more on that later). Just wanted to plug a blog post I wrote for Bloomberg View, the op-ed section of the Bloomberg media empire. If you are a fan of history or trains, you might enjoy it.
Thanks for reading the post and the History Nerd.
One reason why I chose to live in New Mexico (or perhaps why the L of E chose me) is its rich history. I know, no matter where you live, you can find interesting historical tidbits about people and places, but something about that intersection of the three cultures here, played out amidst such amazing scenery, has captivated me since my first excursion to Santa Fe and Taos more than 15 years ago.
Unfortunately, of late I haven’t been exploring the area too much to experience some of that history firsthand. I rectified that a bit yesterday, with a trip to the Puye cliff dwellings followed by a drive to Los Alamos. It was a day of contrasts: the ancestral Pueblos and 20th-century Americans, pottery shards and detritus of the Cold War. But all of it was framed by the Jemez Mountains and a sense that this is truly a unique place.
The Puye cliff (and mesa) dwellings date back to about the 900s and were occupied for almost 700 years. Today’s descendants of the residents live just to the east and north at Santa Clara Pueblo. The Santa Clarans administer the cliff site today and provide the guides for the tour.
Before the tour, I wandered around the Exhibition Hall, which had a one-day treat. Two state archaeologists were on hand, displaying artifacts—genuine and replica—representing some 14,000 years of New Mexico history. The state, you may know, was the home of two paleo-Indian sites that gave their name to past cultures: Clovis and Folsom. We saw arrowheads from the era, some made from obsidian, which turns up frequently at Puye (the Spanish, when confronting the Aztecs to the south, quickly learned of the acute sharpness of weapons made from this volcanic rock, and in modern times surgeries have been done with obsidian tools, which leave behind smaller scars). The discussion included a short lesson on how the paleo-Indians hunted, and how the dry New Mexico climate has helped preserve artifacts that would have disintegrated in other parts of North America.
We also heard how the first New Mexicans used the atlatl, as people around the world did to increase the range and force of their thrown missiles. The diffusion of the atlatl is a mystery: was it spread by migration and/or trade contact, or did it originate independently in areas as distant as Australia and South America? I don’t know, but I do know I love to say atlatl. Atlatl, atlatl, atlatl!
Thank you for indulging my juvenile diversion.
The archaeologists went on to explain how the ancestral Pueblo people and their descendants made a fiber from yucca, which was used for shoes, clothing, and baskets, among other items. One of the archaeologists explained that waterproofed yucca vessels could be used as cooking pots, with hot rocks dropped inside to warm a stew. In recent years, some Indians of New Mexico have been turning to that fiber again.
For the tour itself, I chose the mesa dwellings, since I’d already seen the larger and better known cliff dwellings at nearby Bandelier. Sam was our guide, and he took us inside the kiva on the mesa, which is surrounded by the ruins of several buildings with many small rooms, one fairly well-preserved larger building, and a spot where a reservoir once sat (farming went on down below the mesa). Sam explained that artifacts still cover the site. The Santa Clarans had halted an early dig there when the Anglo professor in charge, Edgar Hewitt, took all the bones his team found of the long-dead dwellers and less than respectfully threw them into a heap, which he then covered with rocks. Today, Sam said, some tourists take home pieces of pottery they find (which is against the rules), only to return home and begin experiencing odd, supernatural occurrences. The shards are returned post haste.
To return to the welcome center, we had a choice of taking a van or walking down, then using a ladder, as the Pueblos once did, for the final descent. One woman in our party was game, so the rest of us followed. That simple choice showed the serendipity one must rely on when traveling/exploring. Although I sometimes unsteadily navigated the foot holes long ago cut into the rock, I made it down to the ladder. And on the ledge Sam pointed out petroglyphs, including one he said is perhaps the earliest depiction of a Spaniard in what became the United States. He also showed us a tiny piece of turquoise he found on the trail. The gemstone, like the pieces of obsidian we saw all around, came from mines not far from the dwellings.
The tour at Puye is not cheap–$20 for what was supposed to be an hour, though ours was more like 90 minutes, thanks to the walking descent. And Bandelier gets all the attention for cliff-dwelling attractions. But this little excursion barely an hour from my home was rewarding because of Sam—a person with direct ties to the people who once lived there. And like other ruins of ancient Southwest cultures or the surviving pueblos of New Mexico, Puye awed me again with the resourcefulness of people who could thrive in such seeming isolation in a challenging environmental setting.
Leaving Puye, I headed for Los Alamos, on a drive that offers some stunning scenery. In the town, I headed for spot decidedly less ancient than Puye and less stunning than the drive: the Black Hole. Something of a Los Alamos institution, I only heard about it because it was holding its going-out-of-business sale this weekend. The Black Hole was the all-consuming passion of “Atomic Ed” Grothus. He called it a military surplus store, but from what I saw, nothing of it was the guns and camo you usually find in such places. Grothus gathered much of his surplus from the nearby Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb (Grothus once worked at “the Lab,” as everyone here calls it, until he decided he’d rather not be at a place associated with nuclear annihilation.)
Grothus was not overly about selling his wares; he just liked to accumulate them. As he told NPR a few years back, his store’s name reflected the fact that things enter the Black Hole, but they never leave. I wandered through the collection of atomic-era relics, mostly wondering what I was looking at. But a group of what I assumed to be artists, at-home tinkerers, and curio buffs seemed to be finding things to their liking. When the sale is over, I wonder if some of this stuff will end up in a dump—or a museum.
Our archaeologists back at Puye said that the essence of their work is using artifacts to explain how people lived. The obsidian and shards on the mesa tell one tale. What will the electronic equipment and pumps and pipes Ed gathered say about us? At least we can say, with I hope some conviction, that the nuclear holocaust that seemed so imaginable during the Cold War is a distant memory. But what the Los Alamos scientists wrought will never go away, even if the Black Hole does. The histories of the modern era and the ancestral Pueblos will still sit side-by-side here in northern New Mexico, and the History Nerd is better for it.
In my new role as seeker of all things biographical, I stumbled across a small news item: The History News Network had conducted an online survey, trying to find the least credible history book currently on the shelves. The top five turned up some heavy hitters: Bill O’Reilly on the right, Howard Zinn on the left. But taking the top prize was David Barton, with his biography of Thomas Jefferson (and a forward by Glenn Beck!), The Jefferson Lies.
Barton is not a professional historian. He is, like me, a History Nerd of sorts, delving into the past for his own enjoyment. OK, that’s not entirely true. Barton has an agenda (yeah, yeah, I do too, but finding the truth, at least as much as that’s doable, is at least part of it). Barton is also an evangelical Christian who thinks Christians should be running things, damnit, like they did in the good ol’ days, when our Founding Fathers created America as a Christian nation, based on the Bible. The same Bible that contains heavenly inspired writings and teaches us it is God’s wish to oppose the minimum wage and a progressive income tax and government efforts to combat global warming.
Somewhere in the midst of his born-again zeal, Barton seemed to confuse the theocratic Puritans (though some would debate that adjective) with the FFs, who included several Deists and a few other guys who did not want religion shaping laws, as much as they might personally accept religious values. But don’t tell that to Barton or the folks who accept his version of history as, shall we say, gospel.
Barton caught the media’s eye a few years ago, though I had never heard of him until he clinched his recent dubious historical honor. Seems like some right-wing pols had found him useful for winning evangelical votes, going back to W. in 2004 and presidential candidate wannabes Bachmann and Gingrich this election cycle. The Ph.D.-wielding Newt even went so far as to say that he “”never listen[s] to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things.” (Which just goes to show what a Ph.D. is worth these days.)
The Jefferson Lies, critics said (including some conservative Christian scholars), is filled with several distortions and plain untruths about our 3rd pres and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Barton tries to paint Jefferson as Christian who wanted a Christian nation and did not want to build a wall between church and state—at least not at the expense of Christianity in the political realm. But in all his supposed exhaustive research, Barton apparently never came across the tidbit that one of the three things Jefferson himself said he wanted to be remembered for—along with creating the University of Virginia and writing that declaration thingy–was crafting Virginia’s Statue for Religious Freedom.
Jefferson was a Deist—he believed a creator, call him/her God if you will, did indeed set things in motion in the universe. And then he/she gave humans free will and the capacity to think for themselves. So in the statute, Jefferson wrote: “All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities,” because “all attempts to influence it [a free mind] by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness.”
Thank god for those words! Because as we know, hypocrisy and meanness from religious types seeking to impose their way have been driven from the land.
The brouhaha over Barton’s book led his publisher to pull it from the market, though you can still buy it at Barton’s own website. And presumably the little media empire he has built, with a radio show and public speeches and a staff to help coordinate it all, still chugs along. Apparently spreading historical distortions in the name of religion pays. But of course, Barton’s fame—and perhaps hubris?—led to the public outcry against his brand of history. How many others out there, of all political stripes, stay beneath the radar and manage to poison the minds of voters, one lie at a time?
Was it really only twelve years ago this November when the eyes of the world were focused on one state, when just a few hundred votes separated the two men vying to be the leader of the free world? I remember it so vividly, the drama, the political machinations and partisanship, the sense that Election Day snafus or faulty tabulation had denied the true intent of the voters in that crucial state.
I am, of course, talking about my new home, the great state of New Mexico.
What’s that you say? Didn’t another state dominate the news in the weeks after the 2000 election? Hmm, I suppose Florida was the focal point of all the post-election hijinks. But New Mexico actually had a closer vote tally: Gore won there by less than 400 votes, while Bush took Florida—theoretically—by 537. Of course, a few million more votes were cast there, and Florida’s 25 electoral votes were a wee bit more important in deciding the election than New Mexico’s measly five. Still, for a time, the unsettled results in both New Mexico and Oregon were mentioned in the same breath as Florida’s disputed outcome, and it wasn’t until December that the Bush team publicly announced it would not seek a statewide recount in NM (something, of course, it fought tooth and nail in Florida; hell, Bush didn’t even want the manual recount in four counties).
Why is the 2000 election debacle on my brain? Probably because I just finished a book on it–for a client who informed me this week it is ceasing publication of all books, this one will most likely never see the light of day, and my getting my second payment for it is not a done deal. Given all that, I might be tempted to post the whole thing online, because I think it was a pretty good book, if I say so myself.
And because, as much as Antonin “Funny Man” Scalia exhorts us all to “get over it” (it being specifically the SCOTUS decision that ended the recount and left legal scholars from all over the political spectrum gape-mouthed), immersing myself in the details of what went on in the 36 days after Election Day (and various vote-stifling efforts before and during it) leaves no doubt that if voter intent were truly discerned, as Florida’s law calls for, Gore won Florida and the election.
I know, I know, the usually mild-mannered History Nerd is opening up a can of really big and disgusting worms here; let me say right off the bat that I’m not going to engage in any online debates with people who disagree. It’s an opinion, though one based on a lot of reading of what went down. And as one lawyer (a pro-Gore lawyer) said in 2002, “There is no neutral view…of Bush v. Gore.” Hell, even Sandra Day O’Connor, who was in the 5-4 Republican majority that halted the recount, said she wasn’t sure if they made the right decision.
But John Paul Stevens, a dissenter, was completely sure of this: The Court never should have issued a stay of the recount in the first place and heard Bush v. Gore. “There just obviously wasn’t any irreparable injury to allowing a recount to go through because the worst that happens is you get a more accurate count of the votes.”
Reading about all the legal maneuvering that went on after November 7, rediscovering the nuances of hanging and dimpled chads and the flawed butterfly ballot, learning for the first time about the Brooks Brothers riot and the steps Bush was taking even before the election to sway public opinion if things didn’t go his way—it set my mind a-spinnin’.
But perhaps even worse was realizing that even after states got rid of error-prone voting machines (though in some cases replaced them with machines susceptible to hacking and that left no paper trail) and Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (which some Republicans are now trying to hamstring by defunding the Election Assistance Commission the law created), the election process in this country is AFU.
Adding to the problem: The two parties have diametrically opposing views (quelle surprise!) about voting. Republicans, in the face of almost non-existent fraud, want to make it harder for people to register and vote, which several studies have shown will potentially drive down the votes of certain constituencies that tend to vote Democratic. Democrats believe everyone who is legally eligible to vote should be able to, with of course some safeguards to prevent fraud (voter ID–good; government-issued photo IDs–not so much). Yes, yes, I’m partisan, but which one sounds like the definition of “participatory democracy” most people would prefer?
We know that the 2000 election was followed by another fairly close contest, with Ohio being the deciding state. The popular-vote contest there was not a nail-biter, though more than one person thought some shenanigans (deliberately creating long lines at polling places in poor, urban, traditionally Democratic areas; possible rigging of machines) helped give Bush that large margin. And once again, though under the radar, New Mexico seemed to have some voting irregularities of its own (and compared to Ohio, its vote was fairly close: Bush won by about 6,000 votes). A study conducted by Help America Recount.org showed that the state had a high percentage of presidential undervotes (no vote recorded) on a certain type of voting machine. Some areas also had high tallies of “phantom votes,” meaning more votes recorded than ballots cast.
By 2008, New Mexico had passed a law that required an automatic recount in close elections, though the issue was moot that year, as Obama swamped McCain in the state. In general, Obama’s comfortable margin across the country didn’t raise the specter of 2000 and 2004. But what will happen this year? Could another close election be decided by court battles and inaccurate counting of votes? Sadly, yes. We’ve already seen Florida trying another voter purge that has raised questions, as the one in 1999-2000 did. We have tough voter ID laws in place that will suppress some Democratic votes. And most damaging of all to the voting process, we have too many partisan officials, from secretaries of state to county canvassing board members, overseeing elections and the counting of votes. Whichever party you belong to, how good would you feel about a partisan from the opposing party deciding the outcome of a tight election?
The 2000 presidential race showed that the idea of one person, one vote—and then having that vote counted properly—is an ideal not being practiced. And that’s one reason why we shouldn’t just “get over” the results of Bush v. Gore and the Florida recount.
As I mentioned previously, I’ve been immersed of late in a biography of John Kennedy, which has renewed my interest in the biographer’s craft (which, not coincidentally, is the name of the monthly newsletter I’m now editing; you can see a sample of an old issue here). I was particularly struck about all the scholarly ink spelled over who exactly wrote JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, which took the 1957 award in the biography/ autobiography category. I suppose professional historians take an interest in this kind of thing because, you know, they do their own research and writing and like to see others in their field rewarded for the same.
So here’s what the latest scholarship seems to suggest (at least as outlined by Robert Dallek in his An Unfinished Life): Kennedy relied on the research and first drafts of others (primarily Ted Sorensen) but wrote the final draft. Dallek sums it up this way: “Jack did more on the book than some later critics believe, but less than the term author normally connotes.”
Hmm. But only JFK’s name is listed on that prize, yes, not the “committee” Dallek says did the work.
Both Dallek and Sally Bedell Smith note that Joseph Kennedy’s journalist friend, New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, lobbied Pulitzer voters to make sure JFK got the prize. (Krock had previously helped turn Kennedy’s senior thesis from Harvard into the well-received book, Why England Slept.) Dallek says the voting committee had five books above Kennedy’s during their deliberations; Smith specifically mentions books on FDR and jurist Harlan Stone as biographies that were originally deemed more worthy. Yet Kennedy got the prize and increased prominence. The book and its success stirred this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, who was not very impressed with Kennedy’s liberal credentials (though to be fair, JFK never considered himself a liberal). To the former First Lady, the Senate’s rising star would have been more impressive if he had “a little less profile and a little more courage.”
I don’t know what other books were in the running for that Pulitzer in ’57. The Pulitzer website does not list the finalists that far back. But you can get an idea of some of the competition for that year by checking out the finalists for the National Book Award (NBA) in history. The biographies included what I assume is the same FDR bio that Smith mentions, James MacGregor Burns’s Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. (Burns went on to write a glowing pre-presidential campaign profile of Kennedy in 1959). Or it could have been another FDR bio, Frank Freidel’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Triumph. Also on the list: Old Bullion Benton, a study of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and Samuel Flagg Bemis’s John Quincy Adams and the Union, the second part of a two-volume biography by one of the most respected historian of the first half of the 20th century. (Interestingly, Benton and Adams make up one-quarter of Kennedy’s profiles.) Another finalist that year was Richard III, by Paul Murray Kendall; several sources say Kendall’s book was the runner-up for the NBA.
So, Kennedy had some stiff competition for his Pulitzer. Authorship aside, did he deserve it? I can’t answer that, but his experience could be another example of the importance of having friends in high places. After his lobbying efforts, Krock said in an interview, “I worked as hard as I could to get him that prize.” It would be flip for me to say, “Perhaps harder than Kennedy did in marshaling the work of his committee.”
But it does seem fair to say that Kennedy never felt any remorse about how the book was written or how it won the prize. Not like Krock later did. After explaining his hard work for Kennedy, the journalist added: “Those are the facts. I don’t take any pride in them.”