December 29, 2011
The 84th Congress (1955-1957) included 16 women—the most ever to serve at one time in Congress. Some were incumbents—well-to-do women like Katherine St. George, a Republican from New York, who was born in England, married a Wall Street broker and ran on a platform of small government and fiscal conservatism to differentiate herself from her cousin, former president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Others rode into Congress on their husbands’ coattails or were widow successors who would serve out their deceased husband’s terms. But then there was Coya Knutson, freshman Democrat from Minnesota. The daughter of Norwegian immigrants, she came out of nowhere to win election by promising to help the struggling farmers of her district. But Knutson had a secret, which she kept even as she was undone by her vindictive husband and the political operatives who used him.
She was born Cornelia Genevive Gjesdal in Edmore, North Dakota, and raised on a small farm. Her father was an active member of the Nonpartisan League, a socialist organization aimed at farmers who sought state control of agriculture to reduce the power and influence of corporate farming. Coya graduated from Concordia College in Minnesota in 1934, then moved to New York City and studied at the Juilliard School, hoping to pursue a career in opera. But after a year, she realized she wasn’t going to succeed in music and returned to Minnesota. In 1940, she married Andy Knutson, who ran a small inn and café in Oklee. The birth of a son, Terry, soon followed. She taught school just across the state line in North Dakota, but in June 1942, she heard a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt. “It was as if the sun burned into me that day,” Knutson recalled, and she became more and more active in civic affairs—particularly on behalf of small farmers.
Years passed, however, as her husband, an alcoholic, turned abusive. Coya Knutson quietly plotted an escape through politics. The Democratic Farmer Labor Party recruited her to run for a seat in the state House of Representatives, and in 1950 she won. But Knutson, seeking a way out of Minnesota, defied the DFL party’s endorsement of a more experienced politician for Congress and launched a run for that seat in 1954. (More…)
December 23, 2011
Peace on the Western Front, Goodwill in No Man’s Land — The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
Even at the distance of a century, no war seems more terrible than World War I. In the four years between 1914 and 1918, it killed or wounded more than 25 million people–peculiarly horribly, and (in popular opinion, at least) for less apparent purpose than did any other war before or since. Yet there were still odd moments of joy and hope in the trenches of Flanders and France, and one of the most remarkable came during the first Christmas of the war, a few brief hours during which men from both sides on the Western Front laid down their arms, emerged from their trenches, and shared food, carols, games and comradeship.
Their truce–the famous Christmas Truce–was unofficial and illicit. Many officers disapproved, and headquarters on both sides took strong steps to ensure that it could never happen again. While it lasted, though, the truce was magical, leading even the sober Wall Street Journal to observe: “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”
The first signs that something strange was happening occurred on Christmas Eve. At 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters: “Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.” Further along the line, the two sides serenaded each other with carols—the German “Silent Night” being met with a British chorus of “The First Noel“—and scouts met, cautiously, in no man’s land, the shell-blasted waste between the trenches. The war diary of the Scots Guards records that a certain Private Murker “met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.” (More…)
December 20, 2011
He was known as “the Great Dissenter,” and he was the lone justice to dissent in one of the Supreme Court’s most notorious and damaging opinions, in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In arguing against his colleagues’ approval of the doctrine of “separate but equal,” John Marshall Harlan delivered what would become one of the most cited dissents in the court’s history.
Then again, Harlan was remarkably out of place among his fellow justices. He was the only one to have graduated from law school. On a court packed with what one historian describes as “privileged Northerners,” Harlan was not only a former slave owner, but also a former opponent of the Reconstruction Amendments, which abolished slavery, established due process for all citizens and banned racial discrimination in voting. During a run for governor of his home state of Kentucky, Harlan had defended a Ku Klux Klan member for his alleged role in several lynchings. He acknowledged that he took the case for money and out of his friendship with the accused’s father. He also reasoned that most people in the county did not believe the accused was guilty. “Altogether my position is embarrassing politically,” he wrote at the time, “but I cannot help it.”
One other thing set Harlan apart from his colleagues on the bench: He grew up in a household with a light-skinned, blue-eyed slave who was treated much like a family member. Later, John’s wife would say she was somewhat surprised by “the close sympathy existing between the slaves and their Master or Mistress.” In fact, the slave, Robert Harlan, was believed to be John’s older half-brother. Even John’s father, James Harlan, believed that Robert was his son. Raised and educated in the same home, John and Robert remained close even after their ambitions put thousands of miles between them. Both lives were shaped by the love of their father, a lawyer and politician whom both boys loved in return. And both became extraordinarily successful in starkly separate lives.
Robert Harlan was born in 1816 at the family home in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. With no schools available for black students, he was tutored by two older half-brothers. While he was still in his teens, Robert displayed a taste for business, opening a barbershop in town and then a grocery store in nearby Lexington. He earned a fair amount of cash—enough that on September 18, 1848, he appeared at the Franklin County Courthouse with his father and a $500 bond. At the age of 32, the slave, described as “six feet high yellow big straight black hair Blue Gray eyes a Scar on his right wrist about the size of a dime and Also a small [illegible] Scar on the upper lip,” was officially freed.
Robert Harlan went west, to California, and amassed a small fortune during the Gold Rush. Some reports had him returning east with more than $90,000 in gold, while others said he’d made a quick killing through gambling. What is known is that he returned east to Cincinnati in 1850 with enough money to invest in real estate, open a photography business, and dabble quite successfully in the race horse business. He married a white woman, and although he was capable of “passing” as white himself, Robert chose to live openly as a Negro. His financial acumen in the ensuing years enabled him to join the Northern black elite, live in Europe for a time, and finally return to the United States to become one of the most important black men in his adopted home state of Ohio. In fact, John’s brother James sometimes went to Robert for financial help, and family letters show that Robert neither requested nor expected anything in return.
By 1870, Robert Harlan caught the attention of the Republican Party after he gave a rousing speech in support of the 15th Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote “regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” He was elected a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and President Chester A. Arthur appointed him a special agent to the U. S. Treasury Department. He continued to work in Ohio, fighting to repeal laws that discriminated on the basis of race, and in 1886 he was elected as a state representative. By any measure, he succeeded in prohibitive circumstances.
John Harlan’s history is a little more complicated. Before the Civil War, he had been a rising star in the Whig Party and then the Know Nothings; during the war, he served with the 10th Kentucky Infantry and fought for the Union in the Western theater. But when his father died, in 1863, John was forced to resign and return home to manage the Harlan estate, which included a dozen slaves. Just weeks after his return, he was nominated to become attorney general of Kentucky. Like Robert, John became a Republican, and he was instrumental in the eventual victory of the party’s presidential candidate in 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes was quick to show his appreciation by nominating Harlan to the Supreme Court the following year. Harlan’s confirmation was slowed by his past support for discriminatory measures.
Robert and John Harlan remained in contact throughout John’s tenure on the court—1877 to 1911, years in which the justices heard many race-based cases, and time and again proved unwilling to interfere with the South’s resistance to civil rights for former slaves. But Harlan, the man who had opposed the Reconstruction Amendments, began to change his views. Time and again, such as when the Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional, Harlan was a vocal dissenter, often pounding on the desk and shaking his finger at his fellow justices in eloquent harangues.
“Have we become so inoculated with prejudice of race,” Harlan asked, when the court upheld a ban on integration in private schools in Kentucky, “that an American Government, professedly based on the principles of freedom, and charged with the protection of all citizens alike, can make distinctions between such citizens in the matter of their voluntary meeting for innocent purposes simply because of their respective races?”
His critics labeled him a “weather vane” and a “chameleon” for his about-faces in instances where he’d once argued that the federal government had no right to interfere with its citizens’ rightfully owned property, be it land or Negroes. But Harlan had an answer for his critics: “I’d rather be right than consistent.”
Wealthy and accomplished, Robert Harlan died in 1897, one year after his brother made his “Great Dissent” in Plessy v. Ferguson. The former slave lived to be 81 years old at a time when the average age expectancy for black men was 32. There were no records of correspondence between the two brothers, only confirmations from their respective children of introductions to each others’ families and acknowledgments that the two brothers had stayed in contact and had become Republican allies throughout the years. In Plessy, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Louisiana’s right to segregate public railroad cars by race, but what John Harlan wrote in his dissent reached across generations and color lines.
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is colorblind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.
In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.
The doctrine of “separate but equal” persisted until 1954, when the court invalidated it in Brown v. Board of Education; during that half-century, Jim Crow laws blocked racial justice for generations. But John Harlan’s dissent in Plessy gave Americans hope. One of those Americans was Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who argued Brown; he called it a “bible” and kept it nearby so he could turn to it in uncertain times. “No opinion buoyed Marshall more in his pre-Brown days,” said NAACP attorney Constance Baker Motley.
Books: Loren P. Beth, John Marshall Harlan, the Last Whig Justice, University of Kentucky Press, 1992. Malvina Shanklin Harlan, Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911, (Unpublished, 1915), Harlan Papers, University of Louisville.
Articles: Dr. A’Lelia Robinson Henry, “Perpetuating Inequality: Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dilemma of Black Access to Public and Higher Education,” Journal of Law & Education, January 1998. Goodwin Liu, “The First Justice Harlan,” California Law Review, Vol 96, 2008. Alan F. Westin, “John Marshall Harlan and the Constitutional Rights of Negroes,” Yale Law Review, Vol 66:637, 1957. Kerima M. Lewis, “Plessy v. Ferguson and Segregation,” Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-First Century, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, 2009. James W. Gordon, “Did the First Justice Harlan Have a Black Brother?” Western New England University Law Review, 159, 1993. Charles Thompson, “Plessy v. Ferguson: Harlan’s Great Dissent,” Kentucky Humanities, No. 1, 1996. Louis R. Harlan, “The Harlan Family in America: A Brief History,” http://www.harlanfamily.org/book.htm. Amelia Newcomb, “A Seminal Supreme Court Race Case Reverberates a Century Later,” Christian Science Monitor, July 9, 1996. Molly Townes O’Brien, “Justice John Marshall Harlan as Prophet: The Plessy Dissenter’s Color-Blind Constitution,” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, Article 5, 1998.
December 15, 2011
Captain John Keay, master of the crack new British clipper ship Ariel, had good reason to feel pleased with himself. He had secured the first cargo of tea to come to market at the great Chinese port of Foochow (modern Fuzhou) in 1866—560 tons of first and second pickings, freighted at the high price of £7 a ton: the very finest leaves available. The cargo had been floated out to him in lighters, packed in more than 12,000 hand-made tea chests, and stowed below decks in the record time of just four days. Now Ariel was weighing anchor at 5 p.m. on the evening of May 28–the first tea clipper to sail for London that season.
She was a brand new ship: “A perfect beauty,” Keay recalled, “to every nautical man who saw her; in symmetrical grace and proportion of hull, spars, sails, rigging and finish she satisfied the eye and put all in love with her without exception. Very light airs gave her headway, and I could trust her like a thing alive in all evolutions.” Ariel was indeed the fleetest vessel of her time; flying the astounding total of more than 26,000 square feet of canvas, she could reach speeds of 16 knots, far faster than contemporary steamers.
But the advantage that Keay held over the other clippers crowded in the port was minimal, and Ariel was unlucky with her tugs. The paddle steamer Island Queen, hired to take the clipper in tow, lacked the power to carry her across the bar of the Min River against a falling tide. Stranded for the night, Keay and his crack crew were forced to lie at anchor and watch as their rivals completed their own hurried loading and started in pursuit. That evening the rival Fiery Cross came down the river towed by a more powerful tug, edged her way into clear water, and set a course east across the China Sea. Keay was still negotiating the bar next morning when two other clippers, Serica and Taeping, appeared beside him. The Tea Race of 1866—the most exciting in the history of the China trade—was on.
December 12, 2011
By the time Paul Morphy was felled by a stroke on July 10, 1884, he had become an odd and familiar presence on Canal Street in New Orleans: a trim little man in sack suit and monocle, muttering to himself, smiling at his own conceits, swinging his cane at most who dared approach. Sometimes he would take a fancy to a passing woman and following her for hours at a distance. He lived in fear of being poisoned, eating only food prepared by his mother or sister, and he believed that neighborhood barbers were conspiring to slit his throat. His family tried to have him committed to an asylum, but he argued his sanity so convincingly that the authorities declined to admit him. It had been a quarter-century since he became a world-renowned chess champion, and for the last decade of his life he was loath to discuss the game at all.
No one could say with certainty what prompted Morphy’s slow decline, but the discovery of his genius in 1846 remained legendary. Morphy, at age 9, was sitting on his family’s back porch as his uncle and father, a justice on the Louisiana State Supreme Court, played chess. After several hours, the men declared the match a draw and moved to sweep away the pieces. Morphy stopped them. “Uncle,” he said, “you should have won that game.” He maneuvered the pieces and explained: “Here it is: check with the rook, now the king has to take it, and the rest is easy.” And he was right.
Soon afterward, Major General Winfield Scott, who had a reputation as a skilled player, stayed in New Orleans for five days while he was en route to the Mexican War. He asked an acquaintance at the chess club on Royal Street to find him a worthy opponent, and at eight o’clock that evening Scott found himself sitting across from Morphy, who wore a lace shirt and velvet knickerbockers. Scott, believing he was the victim of a prank, arose in protest, but his friends assured him that Morphy was no joke. He checkmated Scott in ten moves. (More…)