Monthly Archives: November 2012

Tommy Lee Jones plays radical congressman Thaddeus Stevens, an advocate of not just emancipation but also full equality for blacks.

A Quick History Refresher before You See “Lincoln”

InThePastLane                      November 21, 2012                       Edward T. O’Donnell

Here’s a historian’s guide to getting the most out of “Lincoln.”

Stephen Spielberg’s latest film, “Lincoln,” has been hailed by reviewers as a masterpiece (this historian agrees).  Daniel Day-Lewis’s depiction of the 16th President has likewise been described (for good reason) in rhapsodic terms. Given this hype, it’s likely that you’ll either want to go see the film, or you’ll be dragged to the theater by friends and family.  To increase the chances you’ll enjoy it, here’s a quick history refresher on the context of the film.

The film opens in late 1864 – that means the war has been going on for three and a half years. Hundreds of thousands have already died (toward a total of more than 700,000 by war’s end in April 1865).  No one imagined such a prolonged and bloody war when it began in April 1861.  Nor did they imagine that the war to preserve the Union would expand to become a war to eliminate slavery.  Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation in Sept. 1862 and it took effect on Jan 1, 1863.  The Proclamation declared free some slaves, but not all, leaving the ultimate fate of slavery unclear.

Two key issues dominate Washington, DC during this period:

1) should Lincoln agree to meet with Confederate commissioners to discuss a negotiated peace?
2) can Lincoln and the more radical wing of the Republican Party pass the 13th Amendment that will abolish slavery?

To complicate matters, the two issues are intertwined.  Many congressman who might support the 13th Amendment as a war measure that would demolish the southern economy, would pull back from such a radical measure if they thought a negotiated peace between North and South was imminent.

So when the Confederates send three commissioners North in early 1865 to discuss a possible negotiated peace, it puts Lincoln in a bind. He is determined to win the war and thereby preserve the Union, a goal he believes the Constitution requires of him.  Having long been a foe of slavery (and in recent years warming to the idea of black equality), he is also determined to abolish slavery by seeing to the passage of the 13th Amendment.  But he knows the Confederate commissioners will insist on totally unacceptable peace terms that will recognize Confederate independence (goodbye Union) and maintain slavery (moral imperative bungled).  Still, Lincoln cannot outright reject the Confederate peace commissioners because the Northern public is tired of war and inclined toward accepting any negotiated settlement that will end it.

The central challenge then is: Can Lincoln keep the peace commissioners at bay long enough to gain passage (via a relentless full-court press by key Republicans to garner 30 votes in the House) of the 13th amendment?

Lee Pace plays Fernando Wood, Copperhead Congressman from New York. Copperheads were conservative Northern Democrats who sympathized with the South and bitterly opposed emancipation and racial equality.

Opposing Lincoln and the 13th Amendment are conservative Democrats (many with strong ties to the South) and conservative Republicans who are opposed to wholesale emancipation of four million slaves.  It’s important to keep in mind that racism runs deep in the North in this period.  While many Northerners want to end slavery because they understand that it makes a mockery of American republican ideals of liberty and equality, most adamantly reject the idea that freed slaves will live among them as equal citizens.  In other words, it is possible to be both an abolitionist and a racist; to hate slavery and the enslaved.  Many Northerners fit this description and they envision a post-Civil War America in which slavery continues to exist (ideally fading away over time) and where those slaves emancipated during the war are sent back to Africa.

The most vociferous opponents are Democrats known as Copperheads.  The character in the film who declares on the House floor that (paraphrasing) “Congress cannot make equal those whom God himself has made unequal!” is Fernando Wood (played with exquisite malevolence by Lee Pace), the former Mayor of New York.

Tommy Lee Jones plays radical congressman Thaddeus Stevens, an advocate of not just emancipation but also full equality for blacks.

The most vociferous champion of not only emancipation but also black equality is Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones, or the dude in the wig), Congressman from Pennsylvania.  He is easily the most radical man in Congress, for as noted above, many Americans opposed BOTH slavery and black equality.  Stevens is a key player in the struggle for the 13th Amendment, but he’s also a huge liability because his radical views on black equality are easily demagogued by Wood and the Copperheads to scare Congressmen away from supporting the Amendment.

A few small points to be aware of:

Lincoln did indeed have a high-pitched, nasal voice as depicted by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Lincoln also loved telling stories (likewise depicted to perfection by Day-Lewis), a habit that many loved but many others (Secretary of War Stanton, played by Bruce McGill) hated.

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln

Lincoln and his wife Mary did have a turbulent marriage, but there’s a lot of evidence that they cared for each other. Furthermore, while Mary Lincoln has long been characterized as “crazy” and a major problem for Lincoln, more recent scholarship takes a more balanced view: she appears to have been somewhat mentally unstable (perhaps even bipolar), but this condition was heightened by the strains of the presidency (during a civil war no less) and the loss of their son.

Modern-day cranberry harvesting

The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959

InThePastLane                                                        by Edward T. O’Donnell

What’s Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce and cranberry bread? In 1959, millions of Americans found out. The problem was not with the cranberry supply, for growers had reported an excellent harvest that year.  Rather, Americans were responding to a recommendation from the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to avoid cranberries because tests had revealed small traces of a cancer-causing pesticide in some supplies.  The warning ultimately proved unwarranted, but not before Americans endured the first in a succession of scares over chemicals in the food supply and the cranberry industry suffered losses in the millions. The hysteria marked the first of many food scares in the U.S. brought on by rising fears of threats posed to the environment and food supply by pesticides and other dangerous chemicals.

The cranberry harvest of 1959 was one for the record books, coming in just under 125 million pounds.  The vast majority of it was destined for cranberry sauce, most of which sold in November and December for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s dinners. Growers were anticipating record sales when disaster struck.

Modern-day cranberry harvesting

Modern-day cranberry harvesting

In early November, Arthur S. Fleming, Secretary of Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, issued a warning to consumers that traces of the weed killer aminotriazole had been found in Oregon and Washington State.  He urged Americans to “be on the safe side” and avoid consuming cranberries until the crop had been tested and deemed safe.  Given the time required to carry out such testing, he all but guaranteed that the sale of cranberry products for 1959 would crash to historic lows.

Arthur S. Fleming, Secretary of Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, triggered the Great Cranberry Scare of 1959 by urging American consumers to avoid cranberries and cranberry products.

Fleming was motivated to make this announcement by his reading (incorrect, as it turned out) of a provision (the so-called Delaney Clause) in the 1958 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1958 that prohibited the sale of any food shown to contain cancer-causing chemicals in humans or lab animals.  In the coming decades the Delaney Clause would be celebrated by many consumer advocates and environmentalists as one of the most important early federal health regulations.  Unfortunately, its first invocation in the cranberry scare of 1959 produced only panic for the public and near financial ruin for cranberry growers.

To begin with, the pesticide was found in Washington and Oregon, states producing only a fraction of the national crop.  Secretary Fleming clearly overreacted in making a blanket statement urging Americans to avoid cranberry products.  In addition, Fleming misread the Delaney Clause which prohibited the sale of food products containing dangerous chemicals.  Fleming sounded the alarm when pesticides were found only in raw harvested cranberries, not cranberry juice or sauce.  Finally, later research showed that the amount of pesticide found was miniscule.

Understandably, the cranberry industry was furious.  The executive vice-president of Ocean Spray held a press conference and read a telegram he’d sent earlier that day to Secretary Fleming: “We demand that you take immediate steps to rectify the incalculable damages caused by your ill-formed and ill-advised press statements yesterday.  You are killing a thoroughbred in order to destroy a flea.  You must know that there is not a shred of evidence that a single human being has been adversely affected by eating allegedly contaminated cranberries.”

But the damage was done.  On November 15, the New York Times reported that, “Some communities have banned the sale of all cranberry products, numerous large grocery chains have removed the products from their shelves and many restaurants have dropped cranberries in any form from their menus.”  Cranberry growers, nearly all of them small family farmers, lost millions of dollars.

The Great Cranberry Scare lasted only one season and the industry, with nearly $10 million in compensation payments from Congress to make amends for the government’s mishandling of the incident, saw sales rise to normal levels the next year.  But the fear in the general public over carcinogens and other harmful chemicals in the food supply would never go away.  Indeed, they would only grow in the coming decades with the publication of Rachel Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring (1962), the founding of numerous environmental, public health, and consumer protection organizations, and occasional scares like that in 1989 over Alar in apples.

Happy Thanksgiving!

thanksgiving-corn

Of Plague and Pilgrims: The Grim Story Behind the First Thanksgiving

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie A. Brownscombe (1914) presents a typical mythologized scene showing Plymouth settlers celebrating Thanksgiving with Wampanoags (dressed in the garb of Plains Indians!).

As Thanksgiving approaches, we can expect many newspaper articles and television programs detailing the story behind the holiday’s origins.  The accurate ones will explain how the first Thanksgiving in 1621 bore little resemblance to the scenes represented in paintings—e.g., Pilgrims and Native Americans seated at long tables eating roast turkey and pumpkins. Many will also point out that Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863 during the Civil War and even then it took decades more for the South to begin celebrating it.

But few if any will delve into the essential backstory behind the first Thanksgiving celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts: the devastating epidemic of plague that ravaged the Native population just before the arrival of the first permanent English settlers. This catastrophe so weakened the local Wampanoag Indians that it played a direct role in their decision to make peace with the Pilgrims and to help them survive—the decisions that earned them an invitation to a feast of thanksgiving in 1621.

The Great Epidemic of 1616-1619 had its origins with a shipwreck.  In 1615 a French trading vessel wrecked off the coast of Massachusetts, somewhere on Cape Cod near present-day Plymouth. The local Wampanoag Indians, who’d seen many of their people (including the famous Squanto) kidnapped by European traders in recent years, killed all the survivors except for four men who they turned into slaves.  At least one of these French captives carried the disease that caused the Great Epidemic.

To Europeans like these captive Frenchmen, this disease—long thought to be typhus, small pox,  or plague, but recent research suggests was leptospirosis—had posed only a minor health threat.  Europeans had been exposed for centuries to these and other ailments. While many died, succeeding generations developed immunities and resistance to these diseases.

The “Columbian Exchange” saw the transfer between the Old World and the New of a great many plants and animals, but also diseases.

For Native Americans, however, it was a different story. Their world had never seen these diseases.  When “continental drift” began 120 million years ago, it transformed one large megacontinent into the separate continents of Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceana, and North and South America. These separate habitats saw the rise of unique animal and plant species (in Europe and Africa: horses, cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, honey bees, wheat, rice, and citrus fruits; in the Americas: potatoes, corn, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, sunflowers, tobacco, and turkeys).  Once the age of European exploration began in the late-15th century, these animals and plants crossed the Atlantic in a process historians term, “The Columbian Exchange.” Unfortunately, it also included diseases unique to each region. While many Europeans suffered from the introduction of syphilis from the Americas, the peoples of the Americas were devastated by cholera, typhus, small pox, and plague wherever Europeans made contact. It was conquest, in the words of historian Alfred Crosby, the man who also coined the term Columbia Exchange, by “an arsenal of diseases.”

This image comes from a book written about the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Everywhere in the New World the greatest killed of native peoples was European diseases.

And so, when the disease began to spread from the French captives to the Wampanoags, the latter sickened and died with alarming speed. Once the epidemic took hold in 1616 it raged for 4 years (some accounts note three successive epidemics).  How devastating was it? According to later accounts by traders, Pilgrims, and Natives (and confirmed by modern researchers), the epidemic wiped out as much as 90% of the Native population in southern New England.  Of the approximate 8,000 Wampanoags living near Plymouth in 1600, fewer that 2,000 survived in 1620.

We get a sense of the scale of devastation from a vivid account recorded by a captain Thomas Dermer. He traveled from present-day Maine to Massachusetts in 1619 and when he arrived he found, “ancient plantations, not long since populous, now utterly void; in other places a remnant remains, but not free of sickness.”

Another account of devastation was recorded two years later in 1621 by a party of Pilgrims who were out exploring about 15 miles from Plymouth.  They found many abandoned villages and overgrown Native cornfields. One of them wrote, “Thousands of men have lived there, which died in a great plague not long since.”

Near the site that became Boston, a man named Thomas Morton wrote that so many Natives had died, and died so suddenly, that many bodies were left unburied.  As a result, the surrounding woods were filled with, “[So many bones and skulls] that as I traveled in that Forrest, … it seemed to me a newfound Golgotha.” Golgotha, of course, was the place referred to in the Bible where Jesus was crucified. It meant “place of the skull.”

French explorer Samuel de Champlain found southern New England brimming with robust Native American populations in 1605 – eleven years before the Great Epidemic struck.

To put all this in perspective, back in 1605 (eleven years before the start of the Great Epidemic), French explorer Samuel D. Champlain explored southern New England looking for potential sites to establish a French colony. He rejected the region because the native population was so numerous and frequently hostile. But just 15 years later in 1620, when a group of English religious dissenters that we know as the Pilgrims landed in the same region, they found a much-reduced Indian population and many abandoned Indian settlements and farms.

There was another impact of Great Epidemic beyond sharply reducing the Native population: it left the surviving Wampanoags terrified of Europeans and of their God whom they presumed had sent the epidemic top wipe them out. This fear is significant because during the first winter of 1620-1621, fully half the Pilgrims died malnutrition, exhaustion, and exposure.  The remaining Wampanoags, even after the Great Epidemic, still greatly outnumbered the English.  They could easily have wiped out the settlement and made Plymouth one of the “lost colonies” like Roanoke Island.

And yet–no attack came because the Wampanoags apparently feared the wrath of the white man’s God. One visitor to Plymouth in 1621, a man named Robert Cushman, observed that the Great Epidemic seemed to sap the Indians of courage. “[T]heir countenance is dejected,” he wrote,  “and they seem as a people affrighted” even though they “might in one hour have made a dispatch of us, yet such a fear was upon them, … that they never offered us the least injury in word or deed.”

It was this fear of the Pilgrims, plus additional concerns about the threat posed by the powerful Narragansett Indians to the south, that prompted the Wampanoag leader Massasoit to make peace and establish an alliance with the Pilgrims in the spring of 1621.  That spring and summer the Wampanoags taught the Pilgrims what to plant and how to hunt certain wildlife and fish.  And that’s why they were invited to the first Thanksgiving in the Fall of 1621.

Yet another idealized and historically inaccurate depiction of the first Thanksgiving– “The First Thanksgiving,” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, ca. 1912

All this ads up to a considerably more complicated version of the first Thanksgiving story than we’re used to. Had there been no Great Epidemic, it seems likely that the Pilgrims, had they survived and managed to have anything to be thankful for, would have celebrated the first Thanksgiving among themselves.

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Sources and Further Reading:

S. F. Cook, “The Significance of Disease in the Extinction of the New England Indians,” Human Biology (1973) 45: 485–508.

John S. Marr and John T. Cathey, “New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic among Native Americans, New England, 1616–1619” Emerging Infectious Disease (Feb 2000) http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/16/2/09-0276.htm

William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang; 1983).

Donald R. Hopkins, The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Knopf, 2005)

Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Knopf, 2011)

George Rosen, “Epidemics in Colonial America,” American Journal of Public Health and the Nations Health 44.2 (February 1954)

Michael Willrich, Pox: An American History (Penguin, 2011)

An Irish domestic servant depicted as brutish, violent, and incompetent. "An Irish Declaration We Are All Familiar With," Puck, 1883

Nativism Yesterday and Today – The Case of the Irish

An Irishman depicted as disruptive in “Uncle Sam’s Lodging House” (Puck Magazine, 1882)

People who rail against immigrants and minorities these days would do well to study up on their American history.  Take for example the case of the Irish. Today the descendants of Irish immigrants constitute one of the most prosperous (second only to Jewish Americans) and powerful ethnic groups in America. But there was a time in the United States when Irish immigrants were feared and despised as a threat to all things American–from democracy, equality, and sobriety, to law and order and  Protestantism.

Below you will find a collection of statements about the Irish made by native-born Americans in the mid-nineteenth century.  Make sure you scroll all the way to the end to see a compelling list of statistics on Irish criminality, poverty, and ill-health.

The image of the Irish as hopelessly poor and a burden to the US is captured in this image of a “Poor House from Galway” heading for America.

The Irish as Increasing Poverty

“We, as a people, are intolerant of ragged garments and empty paunches.  We are a people who have had no experience in physical tribulation. As a consequence, the ill-clad and destitute Irishman is repulsive to our habits and our tastes.  We confound ill-clothing and destitution.”
The Christian Examiner, 1848

The Irish as a Criminal Element

“We have for nearly a quarter of a century been receiving several thousand Irishmen annually among us. We have given them land — almost for nothing; employment at far better wages than they could have obtained at home; and political rights equal to those which are enjoyed by the sons of the best and noblest Americans. They have come to us steeped in ignorance and superstition; we have let them have their priests and their churches, and when fanatic Protestants have tried to disturb them, we have resisted it, and have successfully protected them in what we believe to be a mistaken course. They have so behaved themselves that nearly seventy-five per cent of our criminals and paupers are Irish; that fully seventy-five per cent of the crimes of violence committed among us are the work of Irishmen; that the system of universal suffrage in large cities has fallen into discredit through the incapacity of the Irish for self-government; yet we have never countenanced any invidious legislation against them, have never thought of depriving them of the political rights they abused, have never sought to protect ourselves against their misconduct.”
Harper’s Weekly — Oct. 20, 1860

“Thousands are the children of poor foreigners who have permitted them to grow up without school, education, or religion.  All the neglect and bad education and evil example of a poor class tend to form others, who, as they mature, swell the ranks of ruffians and criminals.  So, at length, a great multitude of ignorant, untrained, passionate, irreligious boys and young men are formed who become the ‘dangerous class’ in their city.”
— Charles Loring Brace, Protestant minister and founder of the Children’s Aid Society, excerpt from his book, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them (1872) (NOTE – Brace is talking about the Irish here)

The Irish as Bearers of Disease

“They [The Irish] have brought the cholera this year and they will always bring wretchedness and want.  The boast that our country is the asylum for the oppressed in other parts of the world is very philanthropic and sentimental, but I fear that we shall before long derive little comfort from being the almshouse and the place of refuge for the poor of other countries.”
— Philip Hone (wealthy businessman and Mayor of NYC, 1826-1827), August 1832, in the midst of a major cholera epidemic linked to Irish immigrants.

Famed political cartoonist frequently depicted the Irish as violent ape-like beasts for Harper’s Weekly. Here he portrays a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

The Irish as Spreaders of Vice and Disorder

“The vice and drunkenness among the lowering laboring classes is growing to frightful excess, and the multitudes of low Irish Catholics … restricted by poverty in their own country run riot in this … as long as we are overwhelmed with Irish immigrants, so long will the evil abound.”
— John Pintard (NYC merchant and philanthropist), 1841


The Irish as Corrupting American Democracy

“The average Catholic Irishman of the first generation, as represented in the [New York State] Assembly … [is a] low, venal, corrupt, and unintelligent brute.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, ca. 1885

“[W]hen a Catholic Irishman, leader of the Irish Catholic party, announces and boasts that he will decide political conflicts in this neighborhood as suits his good pleasure by means of the good suffrages of thirty thousand Irish Catholic voters upon whom he can count, the people have an opportunity to see just what sort of an institution the Catholic church is in politics and to understand what a farce it would be to pretend that free government can continue where it is permitted to touch its hand to politics, or, indeed, to exist, for where it exists, it will not leave politics alone.  This is a Protestant country and the American people are a Protestant people.”
NY Herald, October 24, 1880 (quoted in Griffen, p. 268)

The Irish politician as the corrupt “boss” of an urban political machine like New York’s Tammany Hall

“We in this city have got to submit to be ruled by the dregs and outcasts of Ireland.  Men who know not a letter of the alphabet, who have been in this country 1 mo. Or 6 days … decide who shall represent us in Congress.”
— a New Yorker in 1834

“Tammany’s  … official and administrative criminality … is filthifying our entire municipal life, making New York a very hotbed of knavery, debauchery, and bestiality… while we fight iniquity they shield or patronize it; while we try to convert criminals they manufacture them.”
— Rev. Charles Parkhurst, 1892
Note – Tammany is the Irish-dominated political machine

“Tammany Hall bears the same relation to the penitentiary as the Sunday-school does to the church.”
— 1876 (from Carruth, Giant Book of Quotations 409)
Note – Tammany is the Irish-dominated political machine

An Irish domestic servant depicted as brutish, violent, and incompetent. “The Irish Declaration of Independence That We Are All Familiar With,” Puck, May 9, 1883.

The Irish as Unwanted Labor Competition

“The increased emigration from Europe in the late years has operated adversely to the interests of the native laboring and mechanic classes in this city, both by crowding them out of employment, and diminishing the rewards of industry.  Needy foreigners accustomed to live upon less than our own countrymen, are enabled to produce articles cheaper and to work for lower wages.”
— Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor, Ninth Annual Report, 1852, p. 22 (quoted in Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York, p. 103)

“WANTED– An English or American woman, that understands cooking, and to assist in the work generally if wished; also a girl to do chamber work.  None need apply without a recommendation from their last place.  IRISH PEOPLE need not apply, nor anyone who will not arise at 6 o’clock, as the work is light and the wages are sure.  Inquire 359 Broadway.”
— classified advertisement in New York newspaper, ca. 1840 (from Ernst, ch 6 fn 40)

An Irish couple depicted as beast-like and poor. “The King-A-Shantee,” Puck, Feb 15, 1882

The Irish as Possessing an Alien Culture

“I am sorry to find that England is right about the lower class of Irish. They are brutal, base, cruel, cowards, and as insolent as base … my own theory is that St. Patrick’s campaign against the snakes is a Popish delusion.  They perished of biting the Irish.”
— George Templeton Strong, wealthy New York merchant, 1863 (from his diary)

“Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.”
— George Templeton Strong, wealthy New York merchant, 1863 (from his diary) July 7, 1857

The Irish as “Invaders”

“Suffolk County is only a New England county cork’; Boston is but the Dublin of America.’”
–Theodore Parker, The Material Condition of the People of Massachusetts, 1860 (quoted in Bean, 71)

The Pope in Rome looks to overthrow the American republic. Thomas Nast, “The Promised Land” Harper’s Weekly, Oct 1,1870

The Irish as the Vanguard of a Vast Papal Plot to Overthrow the American Republic (note – by “Catholics” these writers are specifically worried about the huge numbers of Irish immigrants, the vast majority of whom in the 1830s and 1840s are Catholic)

“The [Catholic] conspirators against our liberties who have been admitted from abroad through the liberality of our institutions, are now organized in every part of the country … They [Catholics] are already the most powerful and dangerous sect in the country, for they are not confined in their schemes and means like the other sects, to our own borders, but they work with the minds and the funds of all despotic Europe. …  We may sleep, but the enemy is awake; he is straining every nerve to possess himself of our fair land. We must awake, or we are lost. Foundations are attacked, fundamental principles are threatened, interests are put in jeopardy, which throw all the questions which now agitate the councils of the country into the shade. It is Liberty itself that is in danger, not the liberty of a single state, no, nor of the United States, but the liberty of the world. Yes, it is the world that has its anxious eyes upon us; it is the world that cries to us in the agony of its struggles against despotism, THE WORLD EXPECTS AMERICA, REPUBLICAN AMERICA, TO DO HER DUTY. … [to] defend ourselves from this new, this subtle attack …
— Samuel F. B. Morse, The Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (New York, 1835)

“[T]he principles of the court of Rome [the Vatican] are totally irreconcilable with the gospel of Christ; liberty of conscience; the rights of man; and with the constitution and laws and of the United States of America … the influence of Romanism [Catholicism] is rapidly extending throughout this Republic, endangering the peace and freedom of our country.”
— Constitution of the American Society to Promote the Principles of the Protestant Reformation, 1840 (New York)

“If we do not provide the [public] schools which are requisite for the cheap and effectual education of the children of the nation, it is perfectly certain that the Catholic powers of Europe intend to make up our deficiency, and there is no reason to doubt that they will do it, until by immigration and Catholic education we become to such an extent a Catholic nation, that, with their peculiar power of acting as one body, they will become the predominant power of the nation, or if not predominant, sufficient to embarass our republican movements, by the easy access and powerful action of foreign influence and intrigue.”
— Rev. Lyman Beecher, in his 1835 booklet, “A Plea for the West.”

Some Stats on the “Irish Problem” in mid-19th century America
[All stats drawn from the appendix to Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City]

55% of those arrested NYC in the 1850’s were Irish-born

35% of the prostitutes arrested in NYC in 1858 were Irish-born.

70% of all admissions to Bellevue Hospital (NYC’s public hospital) in the 1850s were Irish

85% of foreign-born admissions to Bellevue Hospital (NYC’s public hospital) in the 1850s were Irish

63% of foreign-born admissions to the NYC Alms House (Poor House) 1849-1858 were Irish

56% of all prison NYC Prison commitments in 1858 were Irish-born

74% of foreign-born prison NYC Prison commitments in 1858 were Irish-born

70% of persons convicted of disorderly conduct NYC Courts of Special Sessions, 1859,  were Irish-born

74% of persons convicted of drunk and disorderly conduct NYC Courts of Special Sessions, 1859, were Irish-born

Photographer Lewis Hine shot images of young boys smoking cigarettes to emphasize the harmful effects of child labor.

The Original Demon Weed: The Great Anti-Cigarette Crusade

InThePastLane                          by Edward T. O’Donnell

In recent years voters in many states have approved laws legalizing the recreational marijuana use (and that several other states approved medical marijuana use) has prompted much speculation that marijuana may some day enjoy the legal status of beer and cigarettes. In considering this possibility, it is instructive to look back a century, to a time when thousands of Americans joined a national crusade against the cigarette.  By 1910 they had succeeded in banning cigarettes in 15 states and harbored high hopes of achieving a national ban in the coming years.  And yet, within a few years the cigarette was well on its way to widespread use and extraordinary popularity. So what happened?

King James I of England was an early critic of tobacco smoking after the practice was introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh.

Smoking has always had its critics.  One of the earliest and most memorable critiques—both for its poetic quality and invocation of a moral, religious, and health considerations—was that of King James I in 1603.  Alarmed at the way English noblemen were taking to the habit following its introduction by Sir Walter Raleigh, he condemned smoking as, “A custome lothsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the black stinking fume therof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” Few heeded his advice to abstain and nearly three hundred years later, Englishmen and their American cousins annually smoked, chewed, and sniffed enormous quantities of tobacco.  The critics who rose to challenge this growing obsession with tobacco were few and far between and they were generally ignored as health fanatics or puritanical evangelicals.

It was in the early 1880s, however, that the United States witnessed the rise of a new, vigorous, and widespread anti-smoking movement which lasted until the 1920s.  While some of its members spoke out against all forms of tobacco, the great majority focused on a relatively new product: the cigarette.

A worker stands by a cigarette rolling machine, ca. 1885. Invented by James A. Bonsack, this machine helped launch the cigarette industry.

As late as 1880 cigarettes comprised a barely visible fraction (less than one percent) of annual tobacco consumption, but the combination of James A. Bonsack’s invention of a mechanical cigarette making machine in 1880 and James B. Duke’s marketing genius set the stage for the cigarette’s rise to national prominence by the turn of the century.  Whereas Americans consumed 500 million cigarettes in 1880, they consumed four billion by 1895 and sixteen billion by the eve of World War I.

Those who smoked cigarettes in this era were overwhelmingly working class city dwellers, many of them immigrants from southern and eastern Europe where the cigarette had already become popular.  No city took to smoking cigarettes more than New York where by 1895 its citizens accounted for one quarter of the total national cigarette consumption.

Even as cigarette smoking remained on the fringes of tobacco use in the late nineteenth century, it managed to draw an unusually intense level of criticism and a steadily escalating call for its prohibition.   In many ways this turn-of-the-century anti-cigarette crusade mirrored similar efforts to ban prostitution, boxing, gambling, and drinking.  Indeed many of the movement’s members, like Carrie Nation, were active in these causes.

The formidable Lucy Gaston founded the Anti-Cigarette League in Chicago in 1890. It soon became a national movement.

By far the most prominent figure in the anti-cigarette crusade was Lucy P. Gaston who in 1890 established the Chicago-based Anti-Cigarette League of America.   She and her like-minded supporters centered their argument against cigarettes on three principal issues.  First, they condemned the cigarette as culturally unsuitable for Americans.  They were symbols of the frivolous, effeminate, and foreign lifestyle of Europe.  The New York Times, for example, argued in 1884 that “[t]he decadence of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted cigarettes” and warned that “if this pernicious practice obtains among adult Americans the ruin of the Republic is close at hand.”

Photographer Lewis Hine shot images of young boys smoking cigarettes to emphasize the harmful effects of child labor.

Second, prohibitionists also condemned cigarettes as uniquely tempting to working-class boys, in part because they were cheap (five cents for a pack of ten), small, mild, and quickly used.  The cigarette habit, prohibitionists argued, was a “gateway” vice that set young boys on the road to a life of intemperance and addiction.  “Where boys drink to excess,” opined one editorialist, “they are almost invariably smokers; and it is very rare to find a man over-fond of spirits who is not addicted to tobacco.”  Eventually the cigarette led smokers to a life of crime. “The ‘cigarette fiend’ in time becomes a liar and a thief,” reported one New York City Board of Education official, “He will commit petty thefts to get money to feed his insatiable appetite for nicotine.”  This notion was popularized by the tabloid press. “Charles Burton, aged 17, is to be hanged for murder,” the New York Telegram informed its readers in a typical notice, “He was a cigarette fiend.”

Anti-cigarette activists argued that cigarettes led young women into a life of immorality.

Finally, prohibitionists condemned cigarettes for their popularity among women.   Though women were clearly a small minority of cigarette smokers at the turn of the century, they generated a disproportionate alarm from prohibitionists.  They argued that young women, like boys, were susceptible to the allure of cigarettes which quickly drew them into a wider world of vice.  As the Times put it, “The practice of cigarette-smoking among ladies seems to be generally regarded as the usual accompaniment of, or prelude to, immorality.”  Curiously, no one seemed concerned that cigars, pipes, or chewing tobacco threatened the morality of men.

The anti-cigarette crusade achieved a remarkable degree of success in the first decade of the twentieth century.  Hundreds of thousands joined the cause, including Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, both of whom declared publicly that they would not hire cigarette smokers.  By 1910 fifteen states had banned the manufacture, sale, and use of cigarettes, leading many to dream that they might achieve total victory over the cigarette before temperance advocates defeated demon rum.

Alice Roosevelt shocked the public when she began smoking cigarettes in public.

Cigarette prohibitionists believed they were on the verge of achieving a national ban on the “little white slaver,” but their optimism proved ill-founded for the anti-cigarette crusade soon went up in smoke.  By 1908 cigarette smoking among wealthy woman, including President Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, had already become a well established habit.  “Passing an anti-cigarette law,” opined one observer in 1909, “seemed almost as ridiculous as it would to pass a law prohibiting a woman from wearing more than three pounds of false hair.”

During World War I the U.S. Army called upon the American people to donate cigarettes to the men serving overseas. Officials hoped this small vice would keep the “doughboys” occupied and out of French saloons and brothels.

Indeed, cigarette smoking among all Americans, regardless of age, class, or gender, would soar to astonishing heights in the coming decades. The popularity of cigarettes among American doughboys in World War I played a decisive role in transforming the cigarette from a subversive, effeminate, and dangerous product to a symbol of manliness, patriotism, and stylishness.

Sales soared to 45 billion in 1920 and kept rising, topping 484 billion in 1960. The appeal of cigarettes peaked in 1980 with sales of 632 billion. Rising health concerns and a reinvigorated anti-tobacco movement sparked a steady decline in sales to under 400 billion by 2007.

Advocates of marijuana legalization rally in California in 2012

Today advocates of legalized marijuana point to the status of cigarettes as a model they hope will alleviate the concern among the general public over legalization. Cigarette consumption, they note, remains legal but the industry operates under heavy government regulation and taxation and within strict laws that prohibit most forms of advertising.

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Sources and Further Reading:

Allan Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America (Basic Books, 2009)

Richard Kluger, Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred‑Year Cigarette War, The Public Health, and The Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris (Knopf, 1996).

Robert Sobel, They Satisfy: The Cigarette in American Life (Doubleday, 1978).

Cassandra Tate, The Cigarette Wars: The Triumph of the Little White Slaver (Oxford, 1999)

John K. Winkler, Tobacco Tycoon: The Story of James Buchanan Duke (Random House, 1942).