Monthly Archives: March 2016

N. Calyo's painting, "Ice Wagon," depicts an ice man in the 1840s.

America’s Last Ice Age (more recent than you think)

Headlines warning of an impending “ice famine” were common in the 19th and early 20th century during warm winters (NYT Feb 2, 1906)

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)What on earth is an “ice famine”? Well, if you were alive in the nineteenth century and the U.S. was experiencing winter as mild as this one in 2012-2013, the newspapers would be full of stories about a potential “ice famine.” The problem was not a shortage of ice in January and February, but rather in the coming summer because Americans, especially city dwellers, had come to depend on massive winter harvests of natural ice from ponds, lakes, and rivers to cope with summer heat and preserve their food. The creation of this ice industry is one of the more fascinating stories of American entrepreneurship. It’s also a story of a remarkable transformation of the American diet.

In an age of ubiquitous air-conditioning and refrigeration, it’s hard to comprehend just how much 19th-century Americans depended on ice. By the 18th century, icehouses were standard features on most estates in Europe and even Colonial America, but for the common man and woman, especially in cities, ice in warm weather was as rare and expensive a commodity as caviar.

Frederic Tudor, the man known as the “Ice King” for his role in creating the American commercial ice industry.

That began to change in 1806, when an ambitious Massachusetts man named Frederick Tudor set out to single-handedly create the world’s commercial ice industry. After a trip to the tropics he became convinced that people in warm climates, whether Charleston, SC or the Caribbean, would pay good money for New England ice. And New England had a lot of ice. And it was free. The only costs – and the biggest challenges for this would-be business – was harvesting, transporting, and storing it.

Tudor was the charismatic son of a wealthy family. He was 23 years old and possessed an almost evangelical commitment to the enterprise. “People believe me not when I tell them I am going to carry ice to the West Indies,” he confided in his diary.

Actually, people greeted the idea not only with incredulity, but also laughter. As Tudor wrote, his plan “excited the derision of the whole town as a mad project.” Even his father called the scheme “wild and ruinous.”

But Tudor remained undaunted. He bought a ship, filled its hold with 130 tons of ice cut from a Massachusetts pond, set sail for the Caribbean island of Martinique.  The snickering now spread from his home town to Boston. The Boston Gazette reported with glee: “No joke. A vessel with a cargo of ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.”

Tudor’s first foray into the ice industry brought mixed results.  The good news was that most of the ice survived the voyage. The bad news was that there were no ice houses in Martinique. So Tudor lost more than $4000 – a huge sum at the time.

But the next year he was back at it, sending in 240 tons of ice to Havana, Cuba in 1807. He managed to break even on this venture, but he would have to find a way to earn a profit – and soon.

The next few years saw more voyages and some success. But then bad luck and a theft by a corrupt business partner plunged Tudor into poverty and two stints in debtor’s prison in 1812 and 1813.

As soon as Tudor was released, however, he was back at his ice venture. He convinced partners in southern US cities and the tropics to build icehouses. This ensured that his cargo would not melt upon arrival.  Tudor also experimented with different forms of insulation to reduce melting in icehouses and on board ships. He eventually discovered sawdust from saw mills. Sawdust was plentiful and practically free – and it was a terrific insulator for ice.

By the early 1820s, Tudor was enjoying modest success. But the market for ice remained small.

Ice cutting devices like this allowed for the harvesting of uniform blocks of ice. It was much easier than the earlier method of cutting blocks with saws.

Ice cutting devices like this allowed for the harvesting of uniform blocks of ice. It was much easier than the earlier method of cutting blocks with saws.

Then in 1825 he teamed up with Nathaniel Wyeth, one of his ice suppliers, who had invented dual blade ice cutter pulled by horses across ponds, lakes, and rivers. This device – a kind of mechanical reaper for the ice industry — cut a grid of uniform grooves in the ice. Then workers using iron bars pried loose identical blocks of ice. This method proved far more efficient than the traditional method of cutting irregular ice blocks with saws. And the harvested blocks could be stacked neatly for more efficient transportation and far less melting. Soon Tudor had tripled his production and profits rose accordingly.

In 1833 Tudor sent 180 tons of ice 16,000 miles from Boston to Calcutta, India. Very little ice melted en route and the ship’s arrival touched off a frenzy for ice. Soon a group of investors constructed an icehouse to receive future shipments of Tudor’s ice. In the coming years Tudor – now known as “The Ice King” – sold ice harvested in Massachusetts all over the world. By 1856 ships leaving Boston carried 150,000 tons of ice to US ports and 43 nations around the world.

Here’s an amazing statistic that you can use to win a bar bet:  What product (by weight) was the #2 US export in the 1850s? Cotton was #1 and ice was #2!

But no people in the world fell in love with ice more than Tudor’s fellow Americans.  The tonnage of ice sold by Tudor and a growing number of competitors soared in the 1840s and 1850s. The greatest demand came from American cities. English novelist and travel writer Fanny Trollope toured the US in the early 1830s and later wrote in her book, Domestic Manners of the Americas, “I do not imagine there is a home without the luxury of a piece of ice to cool the water and harden the butter.” Demand for ice grew so rapidly that by 1855 residents of New York City were consuming 285,000 tons annually.

Where did this ice come from? By the 1850s the ice industry in New England and New York employed thousands of men – many of them farm hands and

Ice harvesting in the mid-19th century required new technology and lots of horse-power and human labor.But no people in the world fell in love with ice more than Tudor’s fellow Americans.

lumberjacks looking for work in the winter months – to harvest vast quantities of ice from ponds, lakes, and rivers. Some ice was floated on barges to big icehouses in cities, but by the 1850s more and more ice was moved in railroad cars.

No body of water was off limits to the icemen, not even Henry David Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond. In 1846 Thoreau noted in his journal that a team of burly Irish immigrants had descended on the pond to harvest as much as 1000 tons of ice per day. Thoreau was irked by the noise, but he was also impressed by its implications: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”

Frederick Tudor, “The Ice King,” died a very wealthy man in 1864. By this time it was clear that his efforts to make ice cheap and plentiful meant more than simply providing Americans with cool drinks in the summer. Ice had begun to change Americans’ basic diet. Whereas before 1830 much of the typical Americans’ diet consisted mainly of bread and dried or salted meat, after 1830 it included increasing amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and dairy products. This improvement in the variety and quality of food benefited public health and extended life expectancy. Ice also led to the popularity of products like ice cream. Once the rarest of treats, ice cream became so popular that in 1850 a leading women’s magazine declared it a basic necessity of life.

No body of water was off limits to the icemen, not even Henry David Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond. In 1846 Thoreau noted in his journal that a team of burly Irish immigrants had descended on the pond to harvest as much as 1000 tons of ice per day. Thoreau was irked by the noise, but he was also impressed by its implications: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”

The availability of cheap and plentiful ice meant more than cool drinks in the summer; it changed Americans’ basic diet. Butchers, fishmongers and dairymen began to use ice to preserve their stocks, leading to significant improvement in food quality and public health. Ice also greatly increased the diversity of culinary offerings available to Americans as importers found ways to preserve previously exotic delights like freshwater fish. Ice cream, once the rarest of treats, became so popular that in 1850 a leading women’s magazine declared it a basic necessity. Ice likewise made possible cold beer and other alcoholic drinks. Temperance advocates, however, countered with “Moderation Fountains” during heat waves that provided free ice water as an alternative to the offerings of a city’s countless saloons.

Ice also delivered an impressive array of medical benefits. Doctors at hospitals soon discovered that ice could save lives and began prescribing it as a means of lowering the body temperature of fever victims, especially the young. During the summer, city hospitals issued free ice tickets to the poor, and crowds often grew so anxious outside free ice depots during heat waves that free-for-alls known as ice riots erupted. According to an account in The New York Times of one incident in July 1906, “a woman pulled a man’s mustache and another woman hit a man with a dishpan,” and within minutes, “the ice was scattered on the sidewalk and hundreds were engaged in a rough-and-tumble fight.”

N. Calyo’s painting, “Ice Wagon,” depicts an ice man in the 1840s.

By the 1880’s, about 1,500 ice wagons plied the streets of New York City every day. The burly, typically Italian iceman, a huge block of ice slung over his back and gripped with a pair of tongs, became as familiar a fixture on the urban landscape as the Irish beat cop.

During a typical week in the 1880’s, an iceman might deliver as much as 80 tons of ice, much of it carted up multiple flights of narrow and rickety stairs. The iceman’s daily interactions with housewives gave rise to countless bawdy jokes, an occurrence immortalized in Eugene O’Neill’s drama “The Iceman Cometh,” set in 1912.

While urban Americans clearly loved their ice—Manhattan and Brooklyn consumed 1.3 million tons in 1879 (more than a quarter of the national market)—they often loathed the companies that provided it, and in the 1880’s and 1890’s, a rising chorus of critics charged firms with price gouging and monopolistic practices. Ice companies tried to blamed summer price increases on mild winters that produced insufficient stocks–the aforementioned “ice famines.”

That claim didn’t work in 1896 when in New York City the city’s ice firms were absorbed into a massive national ice trust called the Consolidated Ice Company. Prices jumped 33 percent that spring, and more than doubled by midsummer. Hardest hit were the poor, who could afford to buy their ice, like their winter coal, only in small quantities.

Anger against ice companies persisted after 1901. Here an ice baron sits in an ice house wearing a hat labeled “Ice Trust” and writing, “Owing to the mild winter, we regret to say that ice next summer will be dearer than ever.”

Popular outrage reached new heights four years later in 1901 when investigative journalists revealed that Mayor Robert Van Wyck and other city officials had conspired to create a virtual monopoly for Consolidated. As the price of ice doubled, new revelations showed that the mayor and his brother had been given $1.7 million in Consolidated stock. The investigations produced no convictions, but the mayor, hounded by catcalls of “Ice! Ice! Ice!” whenever he appeared in public, was soundly defeated by a reform ticket in the election of 1901.

America’s ice age, however, was brought to a close not by reformers but by inventors who developed refrigeration and ice-making machinery. As early as the 1870s large brewers had begun to rely on mechanical refrigeration. Soon the meatpacking industry joined them. By 1900 refrigeration machinery was widely available. So, too, was ice making machinery. The final step came with the introduction of electric home refrigerators. By 1950 the iceman had been become as much a relic of a long-ago age as the blacksmith and the lamplighter.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter    @InThePastLane

Sources and Further Reading:

Oscar Edward Anderson, Jr. Refrigeration in America: A History of a New Technology and Its Impact (Princeton University Press, 1953).

Mariana Gosnell, Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance (Knopf, 2005)

Jonathan Rees, The Cold Chain: A History of Ice and Refrigeration in America and the World, forthcoming, John Hopkins University Press.

Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle (Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport, 2003).

Gavin Weightman, The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story (Hyperion, 2003)

 

 

 

O'Donovan Rossa Gorilla Warfare Puck 1884 - crop

When Americans Saw Irish Immigrants as Terrorists

[NOTE – this piece accompanies a similar feature in my podcast, In The Past Lane
http://inthepastlane.com/podcast-episode-007-irish-terrorists-spies-and-more/]

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)In case you haven’t noticed, there’s lots of talk about immigration and terrorism these days. Specifically, many Americans are worried about the alleged threat posed by Muslim immigrants and refugees. They fear that some of these people may be motivated by Islamic extremism to commit acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, much like we saw in the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

Most Americans see this problem as a relatively new one – one that emerged in the wake of the terror attacks on September 11.  But the association of immigrant groups with terrorism has a long history in this country.

In the late 19th century, for eNY Post San Bernadino shooting copyxample, many Americans feared German immigrants because a small percentage of them were avowed radicals. These fears exploded in the wake of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in May 1886, an act of violence that killed 7 policemen and was blamed — albeit on sketchy evidence — on German anarchists.  A few decades later, Americans shifted their fears from Germans to Italian immigrants because a small percentage of them likewise subscribed to anarchism, as well as other radicalisms like socialism. A number of murders and bombings in the early 20th century were attributed to Italian immigrant anarchists, including a massive bomb explosion on Wall Street in 1920 that killed thirty people.

But in this piece, let’s look at the connection between Irish immigration and terrorism in late 19th-century. It’s safe to say that the Irish were more closely associated with terrorism in the American mind than any other immigrant group and for a very long period of time. That’s right – the immigrant group that today most Americans associate with leprechauns, JFK, Riverdance, partying, and parading – was in the late 19th-century associated with terrorism.

Before going any further, it’s essential to point out that there are significant differences between San Bernardino-style terrorism that’s aimed at killing American citizens on US soil, and the terrorism that the Irish engaged in which was aimed at soldiers, policeman, and politicians in Ireland and Great Britain for the purposes of achieving Irish independence. These differences will become apparent as the details of this story unfold.

Let’s start with a quick Irish history 101. Our story begins in the mid 1860s, so what was the situation in Ireland at that time.  For hundreds of years up to that point, Ireland had been ruled by England. This colonial rule had become particularly onerous by the mid-17th century. That’s when the seizing of land from the Irish and transferring it to English landlords began in earnest, along with the suppression of the Catholic Church.

A starving mother and her children, victims of the Great Famine of 1845-1850.

A starving mother and her children, victims of the Great Famine of 1845-1850.

Periodically, the Irish rose up against British colonial rule, most notably in 1798 and 1848. But these insurrections were all crushed. Then in the mid-1840s, the Great Famine struck Ireland, killing more than 1 million people – about 1/8 of the population — and forcing another 1,000,000+ to flee, most of them to America.

Among these many immigrants were ardent Irish nationalists, many of whom had participated in the 1848 uprising. They were determined to launch another uprising that would gain Ireland’s independence. And they would take advantage of the freedoms in America to plot, recruit, and fundraise for this effort.  In the mid 1850s, these Irish nationalists, along with their brethren in Ireland, founded a nationalist organization that came to be known as the Fenians. For simplicity’s sake, we will use the term Fenians throughout this story. But it should be noted that Fenians was a broad term used to describe Irish nationalists who belonged to several different organizations like the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood.  The name Fenian comes from ancient Irish mythology. It’s an adaptation of the Fianna, the name of a legendary band of Irish warriors.

More than 100,000 Irish Americans turned out for a Fenian rally in New york City in 1866.

More than 100,000 Irish Americans turned out for a Fenian rally in New york City in 1866.

By 1860, these Fenians had recruited thousands of members from among the Irish immigrant masses in America. And they’d raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund an uprising in Ireland to gain Irish independence.  And when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Fenians came to see it as enormously beneficial to their efforts. That’s because nearly 200,000 Irish and Irish-American men joined the Union Army. When the war ended, the Fenians reasoned, these battle hardened Irishman would make an ideal military force to help gain Ireland’s independence.

In 1866, a year after the Civil War concluded, the Fenians were ready to strike. But they had come to see that sending a force of 30,000 Irish-American Fenians across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland wasn’t practical. So, they opted for what appeared to be the next best thing: invade British North America, or what we know today as Canada. The goal was to trigger a war between the United States and Great Britain – something easy to imagine, since Americans were still furious with Great Britain for its support of the Confederacy. As soon as war broke out between America and Great Britain, Irish nationalists in Ireland would launch their uprising. Great Britain, they believed, would be so consumed with waging war on the United States, that it would be powerless to stop the Fenians from establishing an independent Ireland.

Now, if you think this sounds crazy, it’s important to point out that many Fenians also thought it was crazy. But they couldn’t stop a more militant faction within the movement from attempting the invasion.

The Battle of Ridgeway, 1866, as depicted in a popular painting

In the spring of 1866 – 150 years ago – thousands of Fenian soldiers, many of them veterans of the Union Army, gathered in encampments along the Canadian-US border, from Vermont to upstate New York. This was surely an impressive start.  But disorganization, poor communication, and sketchy logistics resulted in only one significant invasion effort. On June 1, 1866, a force of 1,000 Fenian soldiers, led by Civil War veteran Lieut. John O’Neill, crossed Lake Erie aboard a flotilla of boats, and landed on the Canadian side. The next day, after encountering no resistance, they attacked the small town of Ridgeway which was defended by about 850 poorly trained militia. The Irish invaders won the ensuing battle that saw eight Fenians and 12 Canadians killed. O’Neill called for 3,000 more soldiers massed in Buffalo, New York to join them in Canada, but by then the US military had moved in to stop the invasion. Frustrated, O’Neill had no choice but to retreat. After a brief skirmish with Canadian militia, his men boarded boats and headed for the United States’ side. But they were intercepted and arrested by American officials.

Now, stop here for a moment to consider this incident. A group of Irish-Americans, some of them still on active duty in the US Army, had conspired to invade a neighboring country to trigger a war between the United States and Great Britain. They killed 12 Canadians in the process. And had they succeeded in starting that war, thousands would have died. And who knows what the result would have been for the US.

Can you imagine a modern equivalent to this story?  What if 1,000 Pakistani-Americans – all of them Muslim – gathered secretly in the desert in Arizona, formed a heavily armed force, and then invaded Mexico? And, after killing 12 Mexican soldiers, they retreated back to the United States whereupon they were arrested.  What would be the reaction in this country? Fear? Rage? Talk of internment camps? Or worse?

While you think this over, let’s return to our story. What happened to the arrested Irishman? What became the Fenian invaders?  Incredibly, all were released and all charges eventually dropped. This occurred for two reasons. One, American politicians did not want to alienate the Irish American vote by prosecuting men who many Irish-Americans saw as heroes. Second, this was a deeply embarrassing event and many US officials simply wanted it to go away.

By the way, the Fenian invasion did not simply go away in minds of the British living in the various colonies that made up British North America. Rather, it helped convince them of the need to unite into a single political entity to protect themselves from the United States. This “confederation,” as it was known, became official – one year later in 1867. So the Fenians failed to liberate Ireland from British rule, but they did help put Canada on the road to independence. Talk about the law of unintended consequences!

OK, let’s get back to the Fenians. Not surprisingly, the Fenian movement fell into disarray in the aftermath of the invasion fiasco. But various factions and other Irish nationalist organizations in the US continued to raise money for future operations aimed at gaining Irish independence. And some of these operations were explicitly terrorist in nature – bombings and assassinations.

Fenian diehard Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa is ridiculed in this cartoon for his open support for bombing British targets as a way to gain Ireland's independence.

Fenian diehard Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa is ridiculed in this cartoon for his open support for bombing British targets as a way to gain Ireland’s independence.

In the 1870s, one Fenian living in New York named Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (depicted in the adjacent political cartoon) established what he euphemistically called a “Skirmishing Fund.” Each week in a newspaper he edited, O’Donovan Rossa reported the success of his efforts to raise money to fund operations against the British. Other Irishmen also raised money for similar purposes. Beginning in 1881, Fenians in the US and Ireland began to put this money to use. From 1881 to 1885 a dozen Fenian bombings rocked Great Britain.  In 1882, radical Irish nationalists assassinated the two top British officials in Ireland, stabbing them to death in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

At the same time, Irish nationalists in New York City hatched another truly outlandish scheme. They commissioned the building of a submarine that would be used to sink British ships. Now keep in mind, while there had been many attempts, including a recent one by the Confederate navy, no navy in the world had managed to construct a successful military submarine. But these diehard Irish Americans were undaunted.

Fenian Ram designer John P. Holland exits the submarine after a test run

Fenian Ram designer John P. Holland exits the submarine after a test run

And amazingly, they succeeded. Well, sort of. It’s a remarkable story. The Fenians hired an Irish-born self-taught marine engineer named John Holland to build the submarine. He’d been studying submarine design and tinkering with scale models for years and now he had the funding to actually build one.  The craft, dubbed the Fenian Ram, was completed in the spring of 1881. It was cigar-shaped, thirty-one feet long and six feet wide, with room for two to three crewmen. Torpedoes intended for British ships would be shot by compressed air through a tube at the bow.  Holland completed a number of successful test runs in New York harbor.

But by July of 1881 the “secret” submarine plot was uncovered by the New York Times. In the end, the Fenian Ram was never put into action. But interestingly, John Holland went on to build the first submarines for the US Navy. In fact, he’s often referred to as “the father of the American submarine fleet.” That’s a pretty amazing turn of events for a man linked to a Fenian terrorist plot. You can still see the Fenian Ram on display at the Paterson Museum in Paterson, NJ.

Puck magazine depicts this Irishman as both violent and unwilling to assimilate into American culture, despite the efforts of Lady Liberty (aka Columbia).

Puck magazine depicts this Irishman as both violent and unwilling to assimilate into American culture, despite the efforts of Lady Liberty (aka Columbia).

This submarine plot, along with the bombings, assassinations, and invasions of Canada (yes, invasions – there were additional ones not discussed here), brought a lot of harsh criticism on the Irish in the United States. It added to the stereotype of the Irish as inherently violent people. This sentiment is revealed in the political cartoons that accompany this piece that depict the Irish as terroristic bombers. Fenianism also perpetuated the claim that the Irish would never make good Americans, because their actions showed them to be disloyal to the United States and obsessed with Ireland. At least that’s what their critics claimed.

So, what became of this Fenian movement and the association of the Irish with terrorism? To begin with, it’s important to point out that not all Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans supported Fenian violence. A great majority of the Irish in America did support efforts to gain Ireland’s independence from Great Britain, but not necessarily by means of violence. The Catholic Church in America promoted this position. It denounced Fenians and threatened Catholics with excommunication if they joined the movement.  As a result, as more and more Irish-Americans began to experience upward economic mobility in the late-nineteenth century, they tended to avoid any association with Fenian-style Irish nationalism. These Irish-Americans wanted a free Ireland, but they also wanted respect. They wanted to be seen as intelligent, hard-working, sober, and patriotic Americans. As a consequence, they worked very hard to eradicate the association of the Irish with crime, poverty, disease, drunkenness, and – yes – nationalist violence. They supported efforts to liberate Ireland, but only peaceful and constitutional efforts. They rejected violence and terrorism as misguided and harmful to the Irish reputation.  By 1900 the image of the Fenian bomber and assassin had faded in the United States. At that point, Americans were fixated on more recently arrived immigrant radicals from Southern and Eastern Europe.

This political cartoon shows an anarchist of southern or eastern European background threatening America. By 1919 the image of the Irish immigrant terrorist had faded.

This political cartoon shows an anarchist of southern or eastern European background threatening America. By 1919 the image of the Irish immigrant terrorist had faded.

Over the coming decades, continued rising economic status, as well as military service and staunch support for the Cold War, earned Irish Americans a reputation as some of the nation’s most loyal, law-abiding, and patriotic citizens. That remained the case even in the late 1960s and 1970s when Northern Ireland was plunged into sectarian violence that often involved bombings and assassinations funded in part by Irish Americans.

These days, no one seems to remember a time not that long ago when Americans looked at a St. Patrick’s Day parade and saw Irish terrorists.

We should keep this in mind as we listen to the vitriolic rhetoric about immigration and terrorism in this election year. And you might keep it in mind should you choose to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

As always, the past has much to teach us. But we have to be willing to listen.

Puck magazine shows buffooonish Irish nationalists carrying bombs to their meetings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Punch, the British equivalent of Puck, likewise portrayed the Irish as dangerous terrorists.

Punch, the British equivalent of Puck, likewise portrayed the Irish as dangerous terrorists.

 

 

 

O'Donovan Rossa Gorilla Warfare Puck 1884

Episode 007 Irish Terrorists, Spies, and More


With St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) being celebrated this week, In The Past Lane takes a look at some fascinating Irish American history. 1. We start with a feature piece on why Americans in the late 19th century associated Irish immigrants with terrorism. That’s right, long before 9/11, the Irish loomed large as a dangerous immigrant group that committed acts of terrorism. 2) Next, we present a feature on Hercules Mulligan, the Irish immigrant who served as a trusted spy against the British during the American revolution. You might recognize his name if yousubscribe-button‘ve seen “Hamilton, The Musical,” or listened to the soundtrack. 3) Then we turn to The History Skinny, the segment where we talk about news stories that relate to history. This week we chat it up with In The Past Lane’s Senior Historical Correspondent, Stephanie Yuhl. 4)and finally, it’s on to a short piece on the dozens of American slang terms (47 to be precise) that start with the word “Irish.” Ever hear of Irish confetti?  Better listen in.
[episode notes and credits below]

Episode 007 notes and credits

Further Reading about the Irish and the Fenian Movement

Terry Golway, For the Cause of Liberty: A Thousand Years of Ireland’s Heroes (2000).

Shane Kenna, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian (2015)

K.R.M. Short, The dynamite war: Irish American bombers in Victorian Britain (1979).

Peter Vronsky, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada (2011)

Patrick Freyne, “‘O’Dynamite’ Rossa: Was Fenian leader the first terrorist?” The Irish Times, Aug 1, 2015 http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/o-dynamite-rossa-was-fenian-leader-the-first-terrorist-1.2303447

Niall Whelehan, “Scientific warfare or the quickest way to liberate Ireland’: the Brooklyn Dynamite School,” History Ireland, Nov/Dec 2008.http://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/scientific-warfare-or-the-quickest-way-to-liberate-ireland-the-brooklyn-dynamite-school/

Music:

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy, JayGMusic.com)

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Howie and Ann Mitchell, “Irish Washerwoman” (Free Music Archive)

Eligible students cast their ballots for the presidential election and several state positions while voting at a polling place in Memorial Union's Tripp Commons at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Nov. 6, 2012. The Memorial Union is the designated polling location for campus residents living in Adams, Barnard, Chadbourne, Elizabeth Waters, Slichter and Tripp residence halls. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Why Do We Hold Presidential Primaries?

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)As the citizens of the United States follow this wild and often bewildering presidential primary process, few stop to ask a very important question: why do we have primaries in the first place? In the history of American democracy, political primaries are of relatively recent origin, so when and why did we adopt them?

Before answering these questions, let’s be clear about one thing: American democracy has changed A LOT over the centuries. Some people find this fact a little disconcerting, since we often take comfort in the notion that amidst the rapid social changes around us, there exist certain constants like the family, religion, language, national identity, and democracy.

But the fact is, as you’ve heard me say many times before, everything changes and evolves, including the family, religion, language, national identity, and yes, good old democracy.

George Washington being sword in as the nation's first President. He was not elected by popular ballot, but rather by appointed electors.

George Washington being sword in as the nation’s first President. He was not elected by popular ballot, but rather by appointed electors.

Just think of the history of American democracy. At the founding of the Republic in the late 18th century most people could not vote and presidents were not elected by the people, but rather by electors. There was no set date for election day. And there were no political parties. In fact, nearly all the founders agreed the political parties were dangerous institutions that threatened to destroy the republic.

Jump ahead 40 years to the 1820s and the situation was very different: nearly all white male citizens have gained the right to vote and Americans have embraced political parties as indispensable features of democracy. Soon came other innovations: paper ballots replaced voice votes and simple shows of hands. Election day became fixed as the first Tuesday that follows a Monday in November. Political parties developed political campaigns, with catchy slogans and songs and rallies and parades to build party loyalty and get out the vote.

Two generations later, the Civil War led to voting rights for black men. Voting rights, of course, that were later stripped away in the Jim Crow era.

American women gained the right to vote in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment.

American women gained the right to vote in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment.

And while that was happening in the early 20th century, women gained the right to vote.

See what I mean? Our democracy has evolved – A LOT — since its creation.

So, when did we add primaries to the mix — and why?

The idea of holding political primaries emerged in the early 20th century, the period known as the Progressive Era. It was promoted by reformers who had come to see the major political parties as powerful and corrupt organizations that controlled the political process in very undemocratic ways for their own benefit. And one of the most important powers they possessed was the power to choose nominees for office, from city counselors all the way up to the president of United States.

The prime example of how all this work was Tammany Hall in New York. Tammany was a powerful political organization that dominated New York politics – and greatly influenced national politics – from the 1860s to the 1930s. You probably know the name, Boss Tweed. He was one of Tammany’s more colorful leaders in its early years. In fact, his nickname – Boss – was a recognition of his power to control politics and elections. It came from his critics, not his Tammany admirers.

The power enjoyed by bosses like Tweed had many manifestations and we will explore them in a future podcast episode on the history of political machines.

A political cartoon about the prolonged and secret backroom dealing at the 1920 GOP convention that eventually produced Warren G. Harding.

A political cartoon about the prolonged and secret backroom dealing at the 1920 GOP convention that eventually produced Warren G. Harding.

But for today, let’s focus on the power to control the nomination process. Every fall, the leaders of Tammany Hall – and the leaders of every other political party organization across the nation – would gather behind closed doors to choose a slate of nominees for every office being contested that November. The only time the people – the democracy – played a role was on election day when they had the opportunity to choose among candidates selected by a small group of men huddled in proverbial “smoke filled rooms.”

Reformers hated this system because guess who it intentionally shut out? That’s right – reformers. Party officials considered “reform” a dirty word. In fact, Tammany Hall’s unofficial campaign slogan was, ”to hell with reform!” Party leaders liked order, and predictability, and they liked candidates who were loyal and obedient to them, rather than to the public. That’s because party leaders had strong ties to business and banking interests – interests that more often than not the target of reformers.

So reformers who wanted to push for laws to improve public housing, education, or workplace safety, or for policies that would reduce corruption or lower taxes – they were left on the outside looking in. Sure, they could form their own Labor Party or Citizens for Good Government Party, but they stood almost no chance of winning. They could also lobby officeholders to support their reform causes, but few if any officeholders dared risk defying party officials for fear of being denied nomination in the next election cycle. So, listen to the bosses, keep your job. Listen to your constituents, lose your job.

In 1884 Republicans dumped incumbent President Chester A. Arthur in favor of party loyalist James G. Blaine. This cartoon suggests Blaine was not just loyal, but also corrupt.

In 1884 Republicans dumped incumbent President Chester A. Arthur in favor of party loyalist James G. Blaine. This cartoon suggests Blaine was not just loyal, but also corrupt.

Party bosses exerted similar control over the selection of delegates to the state and national party conventions that chose presidential nominees. Only party loyalists and stalwarts were chosen, men who could be counted on to vote the way party leaders instructed them based on their wheelings and dealings in those smoke-filled rooms. This fact explains why in 1884 President Chester A. Arthur was denied the Republican party nomination for a second term. Arthur, who has risen to the presidency following the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, had angered Republican leaders by criticizing the party’s corrupt system of awarding political appointments, the so-called “spoils system,” and for promoting civil service reform. So they made certain delegates to the GOP convention in June 1884 dumped President Arthur in favor of a staunch party loyalist named James G. Blaine.

So, how did reformers propose to break this undemocratic stranglehold of political parties on the nomination process?

Primaries. Primaries in which the people could choose the final nominees from a wide open list of candidates. With primaries, the political parties could support their favored candidates, but the ultimate choice of nominee would rest with the people. It would be, Progressive-era reformers claimed, a restoration of democracy in America. We’d once again have a government of, by, and for the people.

Initially, primaries were adopted in local elections for offices like school board and mayor. But they gradually expanded to include nominations for state legislators and governors. By 1915 every state in the country used the primary system for for some or all of its state and local elections.

And what about presidential elections? The campaign of 1912 was the first to feature presidential primaries. In that year, 14 states held some form of presidential primary. The purpose of these contests, of course, was not to nominate a presidential candidate, but rather to apportion delegates pledged to support a particular candidate at the later national party conventions.

But in many states, these early presidential primaries were nonbinding. In other words, they gauged public opinion, but delegates were not bound by the results. And, of course, 34 states held no primaries at all. Delegates in those states were apportioned in the old-fashioned way: by state conventions controlled by the political party bosses.

Despite Theodore Roosevelt's popularity, the GOP chose Taft as its nominee in 1912. Roosevelt then launched his famous Bull Moose campaign.

Despite Theodore Roosevelt’s popularity, the GOP chose Taft as its nominee in 1912. Roosevelt then launched his famous Bull Moose campaign.

The weakness of this early primary system was made crystal clear in the very first presidential election to feature political primaries, 1912. This contest was one of the most dramatic in American history. Incumbent President William Howard Taft was challenged for the nomination by two fellow Republicans, Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, and former President, Theodore Roosevelt of New York. Roosevelt was clearly the most popular candidate among Republican voters. He won nine of the 14 presidential primaries, with Taft and La Follette winning just two each. Roosevelt’s victories garnered him 290 delegates versus only 124 for Taft. But Republican leaders favored Taft, and they controlled the delegates in the 34 states that held no primaries. So the less popular Taft received the party’s nomination. Furious, Theodore Roosevelt launched his famous 3rd party “Bull Moose” campaign but came up short in the end.

In the years that followed, presidential primaries increased in popularity. By the presidential campaign of 1916, 25 states held primaries. But then, the major political parties pushed back against the political primary movement, convincing several states to drop them. Primaries, they argued, were expensive and voter turnout was lower than reformers promised.

So by 1936 the number of primaries had declined to only 12 states. And it stayed that way—just 12 states holding presidential primaries—until 1968. That’s less than 50 years ago. So, the presidential primary system, at least as we know it today, is of relatively recent vintage.

That’s not to say that presidential primaries played no significant role in elections held before the 1970s. In fact, primaries enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and impact after World War II. From 1948 to 1952 voter participation nearly tripled. This upsurge was due in part to new voting rules in many states, but also to the rise of television as a new factor in American politics. Television allowed outsiders and less established politicians to gain popularity which they then could parlay into a bid for the presidency.

Estes Kefauver upset President Harry Truman in the 1952 New Hampshire primary. The victory increased the importance of primaries in the coming years.

Estes Kefauver upset President Harry Truman in the 1952 New Hampshire primary. The victory increased the importance of primaries in the coming years.

For example, in 1950 a relatively little-known senator from Tennessee names Estes Kefauver

became a household name when he chaired televised hearings on the organized crime problem in the US. Two years later in 1952, in New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” primary, Kefauver defeated incumbent Pres. Harry Truman. That result prompted Truman to drop out of the race. 16 years later in 1968, incumbent president Lyndon Johnson’s poor showing in the New Hampshire primary likewise prompted him to withdraw from the race.

While poor showings in primaries doomed Truman and LBJ, strong performance in primaries led John F. Kennedy to his party’s nomination in 1960 and Barry Goldwater to his in 1964.

But it’s after 1968 that presidential primaries began to assume the important role they play today. Rule changes by the Republican and Democratic parties as to how delegates would be awarded to presidential candidates encouraged a growing number of states in the 1970s and 1980s to establish presidential caucuses or primaries. Now every state holds one and they play dominant role in selecting presidential candidates.

But 100 years on, it’s worth asking: have presidential primaries, or at least our current system of presidential primaries, helped or harmed American democracy? Remember, back in the 19 teens when primaries were invented, the goal was to shift power from political party bosses to the people.

Well, many historians and political scientists question whether political primaries actually have improved our democracy. They note, for example, that while primaries have indeed put more power and influence in the hands of everyday voters when it comes to choosing political candidates, over the decades, the Democratic and Republican parties have found many ways to exert tremendous influence over the nomination process. The parties use their enormous financial power and personnel resources to favor particular candidates. And the parties have frequently changed the way delegates are awarded to primary candidates, thereby diminishing the influence of voters.

Critics also argue that political primaries are inherently flawed in terms of representing the views of the general American public. Only a sliver of the electorate participates in political primaries and these voters tend to be more ideologically extreme –– both liberal and conservative –– in their political views. This dynamic can result in the nomination of candidates whose political views are outside the American mainstream and as a result these candidates lose in the general election. The old system of party bosses nominating candidates may not have been very democratic, but it did often ensure the nomination of candidates with broad electoral appeal.

political-party-buttonsBut, people, rest assured, there are many, many proposals out there for reforming both the primary process and elections in general. These range from plan to make it easier to vote in primaries — including proposals to allow for online voting — to changing the current primary and caucus schedule to diminish the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire – states whose populations are overwhelmingly white and economies far more rural than the rest of the nation.

And then there’s campaign finance reform. Yikes! We better not go down that road right now.

So, keep some of this in mind as you observe and hopefully participate in the primary process in 2016. And don’t lose heart, citizens. If there’s one thing that history teaches us, it’s that while democracy is indeed a wondrous and virtuous system, it’s also messy and complicated. It always has been and always will be.

FURTHER READING

Geoffrey Cowan, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary (2016)

David W. Moore and Andrew E. Smith, The First Primary: New Hampshire’s Outsize Role in Presidential Nominations (2015)

Alan Ware, The American Direct Primary: Party Institutionalization and Transformation in the North (2002)

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Episode 006 Why Do We Hold Political Primaries?


This week at In The Past Lane, we take a look at the history behind something that’s dominating the news these days: political primaries.
1. First, I present a feature that explores when we invented the political primary and why.
2. This episode also features a subscribe-buttonHistory Skinny segment where we discuss how history has made headlines in recent days, everything from Donald Trump relating a story about an incident from the Spanish American War that never happened, to Mississippi declaring April Confederate Heritage Month.
3. Mercy Street Rewind: Historian Megan Kate Nelson drops in for her weekly review of PBS’s historical drama, “Mercy Street,” We call this segment, Mercy Street Rewind.  This week, we talk about season 1, episode 6 – the season finale!. PLEASE NOTE: to avoid dropping spoilers on unsuspecting listeners, this Mercy Street Rewind feature appears as a separate segment.  You’ll find it listed as MSR S1Ep06 in your iTunes cue, right after In the Past Lane Episode 006.

Episode 006 credits:

Suggested Readings about the History of Political Primaries:

Geoffrey Cowan, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary (2016)

David W. Moore and Andrew E. Smith, The First Primary: New Hampshire’s Outsize Role in Presidential Nominations (2015)

Alan Ware, The American Direct Primary: Party Institutionalization and Transformation in the North (2002)

Links for stories Discussed in The History Skinny segment:

Donald Trump and the Pig Blood Myth
Donald Trump cites dubious legend about Gen. Pershing, pig’s blood and Muslims

The Real Story Behind Donald Trump’s Pig’s Blood Slander

Mississippi Declares April Confederate Heritage Month
Historian Kevin Levin weighs in via his blog, Civil War Memory

New data shows declining American interest in historic sites http://humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=101

National Geographic
Science Helps Trace Slaves to Their African Homelands  

“What if Washington, Hamilton, Lincoln and Kennedy had Twitter?”
http://flip.it/.gMmL

Music:

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy, JayGMusic.com) Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)