Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Bicentennial of Maria Mitchell's Birth


Today marks the bicentennial of the birth of the distinguished astronomer Maria Mitchell.  Mitchell, born in Nantucket, discovered a comet in 1847 and was lauded at the famous Seneca Falls Convention the following year.  She was a longtime, influential faculty member at Vassar College and was a woman’s pioneer in a number of prestigious academic societies.  

This medal was released to honor her as a member of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, to which she was elected in 1905 along with two other female teachers, Mary Lyon and Frances E. Willard. 

The Hall of Fame of Great Americans, located in New York City, was once a big deal.  Complete with an outdoor courtyard of busts of the honorees, it was  owned by New York University and is now part of the Bronx Community College.  The colonnade was designed by the great architect Stanford White. 

But politics and biases entered in the selection process and, over the years, funds were lacking to run and maintain the program and site.  There have been no selections for decades.

Still, as a boy I was riveted to reading the list of honorees that was posted annually in the almanac.  It seemed to me, as a precocious historian, that these people were, indeed, the “greatest” Americans.  Some  were, but others are rather obscure today. 

Anyway, three cheers for Maria Mitchell, who certainly was deserving of being identified as a great American.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Clement Biddle (1740-1814) and Me


The Library Company of Philadelphia, a research library established by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, has a unique shareholder program in which supporters can purchase the original subscription which belonged to a member in the eighteenth or nineteenth century.  I am a shareholder, and my share was originally owned by Clement Biddle.

The share, number 150, was issued to Biddle on April 6, 1769.  Biddle (1740-1814) fought in the Revolutionary War and was at the battles at Brandywine and Germantown in Pennsylvania and Monmouth in New Jersey.  He eventually served the Pennsylvania militia as quartermaster general.  He became Pennsylvania’s first United States Marshal in the new government.

His share was subsequent owned by four other Biddles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and then by Alexander D. Wainwright, a bibliophile and Princeton University librarian, whose share was acquired in 1969.  Wainwright was an avid collector of Thomas Wolfe material.  I have biographical information on all the previous shareholders.  My share was issued on March 27, 2018.

This is a fantastic fundraising program by a historic library and it is administered in a way that creates a connection with specific supporters from the past.  I am delighted to be part of this effort and this library. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

JFK Visits Mexico, 1962


Fifty-six years ago today President Kennedy began his three-day state visit to Mexico.  He and Mrs. Kennedy were greeted by a tumultuous ticker tape parade in Mexico City. In addition to the typical luncheons and dinners, the president visited a housing project and participated in an early U.S. Independence Day celebration.  The mayor of Mexico City gave him the key to the city and made him an honorary citizen.  He promoted his hemispheric Alliance for Progress.

At a luncheon on May 29 President Kennedy said, “For Mexico and the United States share more than a common frontier.  We share a common heritage of revolution, a common dedication to liberty, a common determination to preserve in these great days the blessings of freedom and to extend its fruits to all.”

He added, “Two great and independent nations, united by hope instead of fear, are bound to have matters on which we must consult together, and are equally bound to discuss them in a frank and friendly manner, to agree where we can agree, to respect each others’ views where we disagree.  As co-tenants of the same great continent, we cannot meet our mutual needs in disarray, but working together we can face the future with confidence for there is much to be done in that future.”

Photograph of the president's welcome--it is ticker tape, not snow--is credited:  Robert Knudsen.  White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston; public domain.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck


Pearl S. Buck, one of America’s most distinguished novelists, was born on this day in 1892.  She spent much of her childhood in China and was a prolific writer on China and Asia. Perhaps best known for the novel “The Good Earth,” she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938
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She also wrote about America and on the theme of democracy.  In essays that comprise a 1943 book, “Asia and Democracy”—coming at the midpoint of the second world war—she discusses the prospects for enlightened self-rule in Asia, but also touches on race relations in the United States.

As a Nobel laureate, she was invited to the White House in April 1962 for the dinner in which President and Mrs. Kennedy honored forty-nine Nobel Prize recipients.  That night she sat at the First Lady’s table in the Blue Room, next to astronaut John Glenn. Among the other luminaries at the table was Lester Pearson, Nobel Peace Prize winner and soon to be prime minister of Canada.

After dinner she spoke with President Kennedy about geopolitical issues in East Asia.  Asked what she thought about Japan helping to rebuild Korea, she was flummoxed, knowing the rocky historical relationship between the two countries.  She diplomatically offered to send him her upcoming book on Korea, a historical novel entitled “The Living Reed.”  The book was published in 1963 after the president’s death.

Pearl Buck also was a humanitarian, launching the Pearl S. Buck Foundation.  And she wrote a book about her daughter, who was afflicted with phenylketonuria, “The Child Who Never Grew,” which influenced Rose Kennedy in her relationship with her daughter Rosemary.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Homestead Act of 1862


The Homestead Act, a pivotal law which allowed for the disposal of western land, was enacted on May 20, 1862.  Coming during the Civil War, the Republican-controlled Congress was able to pursue a goal that had been thwarted by southern members, who were now gone.  This was part of a series of sweeping legislation which grew the federal government’s reach.

The law was shepherded through by one-term Speaker of the House Galusha Grow, who became known as the “Father of the Homestead Act.”  Grow represented a district in northeastern Pennsylvania and succeeded David Wilmot, the author of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have outlawed slavery on lands acquired during the Mexican War.  Land was a major focus of the national government during the antebellum period in economic terms, on the expansion of slavery, and its impact  on the political calculus.

I have a foxed copy of a book which would have been used by potential homesteaders in the immediate aftermath of the 1862 law.  How to Get a Farm, and Where to Find One provides 345 pages of guidance on how to navigate through the world of acquiring a farm. 

The author, James Miller, warns about legislation such as the Morrill Act, which provided for land-grant colleges, have a harmful potential, quoting one member of Congress:  “Every day witnesses the birth of new projects, by which our public lands may be frittered away, and the beneficent policy of the Homestead Law mutilated and destroyed.”  Fortunately, Miller says, there are strategies “to obtain the greatest number of acres for the smallest amount of money.”