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.”

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1929-1994


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died in on this day twenty-four years ago, effectively putting a final bookend on the Camelot era. He was sixty-four years old.  Her fashion style and grace were an integral part of the Kennedy years, but her work in restoring and upgrading the artistic grandeur of the White House was her more enduring legacy.

During her years as first lady, 1961 to 1963, she established the office of White House curator, formed a Fine Arts Committee of art connoisseurs and historians to track down original White House art and furnishings, launched the White House Historical Association, and created a White House guidebook. 

She was especially noted for her CBS-televised tour of the White House on Valentine’s Day 1962 in which he explained many of the changes that she had undertaken.  For her role in this documentary, which was the first on television for a woman, she was awarded an Emmy.

In her post-presidential years, she remarried, was chased by paparazzi and reluctantly the focus of the media.  But she also was a successful editor at Viking Press and then Doubleday, bringing books from a diverse group of writers to publication, and also helped to save Grand Central Station in New York City from the wrecking ball.

While other first ladies had different focuses during their White House years—some of which were especially noteworthy—Jackie Kennedy retains a special place in twentieth-century American presidential history.



Thursday, May 17, 2018

Brown v. Board of Education: May 17, 1954


One of the landmark Supreme Court decisions of the twentieth century, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, was handed down on May 17, 1954.  Striking down separate but equal facilities, the decision had far-reaching effects. 

And yet implementation was slow, and southern states adopted measures to impede the directive.  Especially strong was the organized effort in Virginia, where a massive resistance initiative was led by Harry F. Byrd, the state’s senior U.S. senator.  The Prince Edward County public schools in southcentral Virginia shut down operations for a decade to avoid complying with the Supreme Court ruling to integrate.

I have been researching James Baldwin—for both my current and next book—and he had a skeptical assessment of the decision.   In his book The Fire Next Time, published in 1963, he judged Brown to be motivated by geopolitics rather than on issues of equality. 

He said, “White Americans have contented themselves with gestures that are now described as ‘tokenism.’  Perhaps.  It all depends on how one reads the word ‘progress.’  Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons, to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters.”

Among the notable people involved in Brown was Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer for the NAACP, a plaintiff, who went on to be appointed as the first African-American on the Supreme Court.  President Eisenhower was cool to the idea of integration and had actually lobbied against the plaintiffs with Chief Justice Earl Warren; the ruling, however, was unanimous. 

The “Brown” in the decision was Oliver Brown, the father of Linda Brown, who attempted to be the first African-American to attend an elementary school in the Kansas state capital.  Ironically, the school, Sumner Elementary School, was launched to educate African-Americans in the nineteenth century. Linda Brown died two months ago at the age of 75.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Jackie Kennedy's Favorite White House Dinner


The Nobel Prize dinner at the White House on April 29, 1962 may have been the most impressive dinner of the Kennedy years—and perhaps the dinner of the century at the White House—but First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was especially excited about the next dinner, which took place only twelve days later.  It honored French cultural affairs minister Andre Malraux.

Mrs. Kennedy was fascinated by Malraux.  When asked about what made him special, she replied:  "He happens to be a war hero, a brilliant, sensitive writer, and he happens to have a great mind."

The dinner, like the Nobel event, was star-studded with many people from the literary world.  Among them were Saul Bellow, Paddy Chayefsky, John Hersey, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Penn Warren, Thornton Wilder, and Tennessee Williams.

Others included Charles Lindbergh, who sat at the president’s table, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh—both of whom had met with the president at the White House earlier in the day—and Andrew Wyeth.   Stephane Boudin, who was so instrumental in the recent refurbishment of the White House, also was there.

What was also noteworthy about the Malraux dinner was that shortly afterward, the French government loaned Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, to the United States, where it was shown at the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jacqueline Kennedy, America’s unofficial queen and social trendsetter of the early 1960s, continued to have special dinners and events at the White House as she went about making the famous building both a national salon and a living museum for the American people.

Photo credit:  Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Presidential Entertaining at Mount Vernon


The U.S. and French presidents are scheduled to dine tonight at Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.  Undoubtedly, the most impressive presidential dinner to take place there was on July 13, 1961.

Nearly six months into the new administration, President and Mrs. Kennedy hosted Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Khan in what was the first state dinner undertaken outside the White House.  More than 137 guests, mostly American and Pakistani officials, attended the gala event held under a tent on the lawn.

There were huge logistical issues, notably, transporting the guests, food, dishes—in fact, everything needed for the dinner.  Four boats, including two presidential yachts, left from the pier at the Naval Weapons Plant in Southwest Washington, D.C., sailed up the river to Mount Vernon, giving the guests a breathtaking view on a warm and pleasant evening.

Guests dined on a main course of Poulet Chasseur.  They listenedd to the National Symphony Orchestra perform selections from Mozart, Debussy, Barber, and Gershwin.

This was only one of the many gala dinners and events during the Kennedy years.  The Nobel Prize dinner, honoring American intellectuals, would take place eleven months later, and would be a highlight of Camelot.

Photo credit:  Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.