Friday, July 04, 2014


I keep reading that the election of 1884 was one of the “dirtiest” in American history, which strikes me as saying that a sewer is dirtier than a septic tank. Still I have to admit that there was a lot of mud flung around by James Blaine and Grover Cleveland. And as usual, he who flung the most, won. Blaine got in the first shot.
The Democratic convention in Buffalo, New York ended on July 11th 1884, after having nominated hometown hero, “Honest” Grover “The Good” Cleveland. Just ten days later the “Buffalo Evening Telegraph” reported “A Terrible Tale”; that in 1874 Cleveland had an affair with a young widow from New Jersey, Maria Helpin. In September Mrs. Helpin had given birth to a son she named Oscar Folsom Cleveland (Folsom was the name of Cleveland’s law partner). According to the “Telegraph”, Maria ended up in an asylum and the poor innocent boy had ended up in an orphanage. The Republican faithful began the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.” 
It was a great story, and parts of it were true. But Cleveland (above) refused to panic and instructed his followers to “Just tell the truth”, which is easy to say at those rare times when the truth actually helps you. The truth was that Mrs. Helpin had affairs with several men (something that probably happened a lot more often than anyone in 1884 was willing to publicly admit), and there were several men who might have been the father. Cleveland never admitted parentage. But he had supported the infant after Maria started drinking. Later, when it became clear Maria was not going to get sober anytime soon, Cleveland had paid her $500 to give up Oscar, and the boy was adopted by a friend of Cleveland’s, and eventually ended up graduating from medical school. So, the initial Blaine attack had resulted in Cleveland sounding more honest than before. The second Blaine attack backfired even worse.
There were two “third parties” in 1884; the Greenback Party and the Prohibition Party. The Greenback Party seemed likely to hurt the Democrats most, so Blaine’s supporters actually gave them money. “The Dry’s” had nominated John St. John (above), three time governor of Kansas. Blaine’s people were worried that St. John would siphon off Republican votes in upstate New York. They urged St. John to drop out of the race, and when he refused they spread the story that St. John had abandoned a battered wife and child in California. Again, the smear was true, sort of. After his parents had died (when St. John was 15) he had joined the ‘49ers, looking for his fortune in the gold fields. He didn’t find gold but at the age of 19 he had found a wife and fathered a child. And at his wife’s request he had “granted” her, to use the old phrase, a divorce, before returning, broke, to Illinois.
Like most smears this one hurt St. John the most amongst his most fervent supporters. Prohibitionists were always a priggish bunch of humorless unforgiving bores, and they abandoned St. John as if they had just discovered the sacramental wine was actual wine. But St. John had that other trait you often find in prohibitionists; he considered revenge a matter of principle. Knowing he now stood no chance of even winning Kansas, St. John concentrated his efforts in upstate New York, just the place the Republicans were the most worried about.
Meanwhile, James Blaine, the Republican candidate, had his own problems, with the “Mugwumps”. This was yet another group of holier than thou Victorian prigs, but these prigs were Republicans, and they had a hard time deciding whether or not to support Blaine because he was so…well, crooked. They took their name from a supposed Algonquin word for “big leader”, but it was "New York Sun" columnist Charles Dana who defined them as Republicans who had their “mugs” on one side of the fence and their “wumps” on the other. Republican commentators went so far as to imply that the Mugwumps were “effete”, or to use the 1884 vernacular, “Man millners”, or the 2011 vernacular, homosexuals.

 Meanwhile the Democrats were throwing everything they could think of at "James Blaine, the Continental Liar From the State of Maine", such as calling him "Slippery Jim". They dragged up the old charge of “Burn this letter after reading”. And the Indianapolis Sentinel even discovered that Blaine had married his wife only after her father had threatened him with a shotgun. Blaine sued for liable but the paper then produced the certificates showing the couple had been married in March, 1851 and their first child had been born less than three months later. Blaine came up with a story about two ceremonies, one private in 1850, and a public wedding a year later, but by the time he finish the audience had turned to the comic pages. 
But the final nail in Blaine’s coffin was supposedly driven in by the Reverend Samuel Burchard, who at a New York City Republican rally, with Blaine sitting at the dais, charged that the Democrats stood for “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”. The press had a field day, implying the phrase was anti-southern and anti-Catholic, (which it was) and that by his silence Blaine had approved of it. But that last part was absurd. Blaine’s mother was a practicing Catholic. His sister was a nun. The Republicans had been hoping to attract some Catholic votes away from the Democrats. But none of that mattered to the press, or to the Democrats who publicly organized Catholic Democratic lawyers in case they had to contest the official election results from New York. The truth was none of that really mattered.
In the end it is difficult to say precisely why Cleveland won and Blaine lost. The popular vote cast on Election Day, November 4, 1884, was four million eight hundred seventy-four thousand for Cleveland (48.5%) and four million eight hundred forty-eight thousand (48.2%) for Blaine. But as we all know the popular vote is meaningless. What counted was the Electoral College, and there Cleveland won two hundred nineteen votes to one hundred eighty-two for Blaine, giving Cleveland a 37 vote electoral victory. The difference was New York State’s 36 votes which Cleveland won by a mere 1,047 votes out of one million one hundred twenty-five thousand and forty-eight votes cast in that state. I think what made those 1,047 votes so powerful were the twenty-four thousand nine hundred ninety-nine votes cast for Prohibitionist Party candidate John St, John in upstate New York. It may have been the last time a prohibitionist could proudly say, “Here’s mud in your eye.” 

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014


I hate to disappoint you, but Betsy Ross did not create the American flag. The creator was the lawyer, songwriter and New Jersey author Frances Hopkinson, who, a year earlier, had signed the Declaration of Independence. We know it was Hopkinson because he actually submitted two bills for his design work – the first one for about $18. But the stingy Continental Congress balked at paying that. So he lowered his price to “A quarter cask of Public Wine”; meaning, the cheap stuff. I think he was trying to make a point but even then he didn’t get paid. The bureaucrats argued that Frances was already on salary, which meant they had already paid him for the design. He was unable to pursue his case because he died in early May of 1791, of an epileptic seizure. But then, I don’t want to write a treatise on the vexillology of the American flag. I want to talk about the pledge of allegiance to it.
You see, the pledge was written as a sales gimmick to sell flags. This is pretty big business today, considering about 100 million American flags are currently sold every year. That’s enough to justify the formation of the “Flag Makers Association of America”, a lobby group required because American-made American flags are 30% more expensive than Chinese-made American flags. But I digress again because my point is that faith in capitalism requires a certain amount of rationalization , and profiting from the symbol of our nation is just another one of those. And it was a rationalization that was part of the job description for another Frances.
In 1892 Frances Bellamy (above), who was a fired Baptist minister, was working as the publicity director for a Boston magazine called “The Youth’s Companion”, He was also responsible for planning the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of America,  for the National Education Association. And since the magazine had a nice side business going,  selling American flags to schools (their goal was to have one in every classroom),  Frances thought that a pledge for this special occasion would be an inexpensive way to increase the sale of flags. After all, you can’t pledge allegiance to the flag unless you have a flag.
His pledge, published in the 8 September, 1892 issue of the magazine (above), was just 23 words long and could be recited in less than 15 seconds - about the attention span of the average eight year old child - then. Today its about half that long.  It went just like this -  “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  On 29 October that pledge was first recited in American classrooms,  and at the opening of the Chicago Columbia Exposition. Like the Gettysburg address, Bellamy’s pledge was eloquent in its simplicity. But even Frances could not resist tampering with perfection. He added an unfortunate salute.
Well, it was called the Bellamy Salute, but he did not invent it. It was the brainstorm of  James Upham, junior editor of "The Youth’s Companion".  But it was Frances who laid out instructions for what I would call "a salute too far".  They read. “…At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation.” Forty years later the extended arm salute would be preempted by Adolf Hitler, and tactfully dropped from the American pledge.
Not that people ever stopped trying to improve upon perfection. In 1923 the America Legion, then made up mostly of veterans of World War One, the Spanish American War, and the Philippines Insurrection, decided that the phrase “my flag” was too open to interpretation. So they added an entire phrase, so there would be no confusion about what country we were talking about. The pledge now began, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” I guess the red, white and blue thing on the wall was not evidence enough.  In 1940, with a World War once again looming, the Supreme Court ruled that even Jehova’s Witnesses could be required to stand at attention and recite the pledge in school, which the Witnesses had argued violated their faith.  On 22 June, 1943 Congress made the pledge the official pledge of allegiance to America - by law.  Because of the new law, the Supreme Court reversed itself, and the "official" pledge was no longer compulsory for Jehovah Witnesses.
Then in 1951 the Knights of Columbus decided the words “Under God” were desperately needed in the pledge, and on “Flag Day”, 14  June, 1954, Congress made that addition official, as well.  The oath now officially reads “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. The pledge was now 31 words long. And to be honest with you, I don’t think the longer version is any clearer. Instead, its sort of like the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee.
Consider the oath, just as a piece of language. If the oath were to stop after the word “stands” we would have a simple sentence (“I pledge allegiance to the flag) with two modifying phrases (“of the United States of America”, and, “and to the Republic for which it stands”.) In this case the Republic is the modifier of the flag, which makes sense because the original intent was to sell flags; remember?
But that was not good enough for all those who honestly wanted to improve on the oath, to make it clearer, and avoid confusion and misunderstandings. I'm not sure how many misunderstandings there were, but you know what they about cooks and broths - the more the better. Right. And this  kind of thinking produced four modifying prepositional phrases on top of the two we already had – making six in all.
But is love of country really that complicated? Does the detail actually make things clearer, or more confusing? It sounds as if those seeking more detail, are looking for an iron clad contract they can sue somebody over. Isn’t it enough if your lover says “I love you”?  Does adding a pre-nup increase or decrease your odds of ending up in divorce court?
I guess the basic question is, are you looking for an affirmation of love, or an affirmation of suspicion, giving your heart, or protection against having your heart broken? Because, you can’t have both, particularly when you are talking about love of a democracy.  You can't force people into heaven. And you can't force them to love the same country you do.
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Sunday, June 29, 2014


I suspect there were growing murmurings among the rank and file of Coxey’s Army as they finally breached the mountain ramparts southwest of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Each night the men formed a picket line around the encampment while a circus tent was erected as their shelter. Then, each Group would build a cooking fire, while their leaders would collect and distribute rations either bought by Coxey or donated by sympathetic locals. After an early meal, designated groups would be sent out to canvass the area for more donations of food, clothing and money. But the vast majority of the men stayed in camp, where they had little to do but talk.
"Well," said the Head, "I will give you my answer. You have no right to expect me to send you back to Kansas unless you do something for me in return. In this country everyone must pay for everything he gets. If you wish me to use my magic power to send you home again you must do something for me first. Help me and I will help you."
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
What the soldiers in Coxey's Army were talking about  was their leader. Many nights, and every Sunday, Carl Browne would berate the men with ideological harangues, selling his vision of the unity of all working men, along with his version of Christianity - mixed with a little reincarnation. Most of the Army had long since stopped listening to his speeches, referring to him in private as the “Great Humbug.” But they also noticed that after the oration, while they settled into their bed rolls on the cold ground, Browne and Coxey spent every night in warm soft beds in local hotels. And should they ever forget to notice this disparity in creature comforts, The Great Unknown Smith was always careful to point out that he was sharing all the discomforts of the march with them, unlike Mr. Browne.
The Great Unknown Smith had been recruited by Carl Browne (above), and had been his partner in the patent “Blood Purefyer” business before Coxey had appeared in Chicago. Browne even knew The Great’s Unknown Smith's real name, A.B.P. Bazarro, and that the silent veiled lady who always followed him around was really Bizarro's wife. The press, particularly those from Chicago, had known The Great’s real identity all along, but he was such good copy as The Great Uknown Smith, that they had not shared this information with their readers, or the Army. In fact there was an outrageous rumor running about camp that the Great Unknown Smith was in fact a Pinkerton spy - and by his later actions, I suspect he may have been.
In the teeth of a snowstorm, on April 11th, 1894, the Army made the hard march south west, out of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. They were following the old National Highway, which had first been created by President Thomas Jefferson. It was the last significant road improvement project the Federal Government had undertaken, over ninety years earlier.
Now this motley Army was petitioning their government for a new, larger investment in national infrastructure. They were speaking, they said, with their boots, as they struggled past Fort Necessity, built by George Washington -  the construction of which had set off the French and Indian War in North America. They plodded in the snow past the grave of the British General Braddock (above) , who had been ambushed on the road to Pittsburgh. Coxey's Army, speaking for the vast armies of unemployed, trudged step by step over the 2,000 foot high Big Savage Mountain. Every man was cold, wet and exhausted. Patience was in short supply. Reason was slipping away. It was a bad time for a fight, so of course they had one.
As they reached the peak the Great Unknown Smith – who was mounted this day – rode back to the commissary wagons to grab a snack. Carl Browne saw this and was infuriated. He rode up to Smith and berated him, and then returned to the front of the column. After smoldering over the insult for a mile or so on the down slope, Smith rode forward to the lead and verbally unloaded on the buckskinned duomo, calling him a “fat faced fake” and threatening that if Browne ever spoke to him like that again he would “make a punching bag out of your face.” “I found you on your uppers in Chicago” Smith shouted. “I picked you out of the mud.”
Browne immediately ordered the marchers to halt. They stopped. Smith responded by commanding the Army to “Forward March”. The army hesitated, but enough men automatically leaned forward, that Smith (actually Bazarro) sensed an advantage and seized the moment.
He turned his horse and rode back among the men. “You and I have roughed it together,” he reminded them. “You know I have been with you…while others were enjoying their ease. It is for you to say men, who shall command you…Will you have Smith …or this leather coated polecat?” It was a loaded question, and the Army responded as expected,  with chants of “Smith, Smith , Smith!” Even Coxey’s eldest son, Jesse, joined the mutineers. With that,  Smith (actually Bazarro) led the army down the slope, while Browne, now bereft of command, galloped to the nearest telegraph office.
Jacob Coxey was in Cumberland, Maryland, arranging supplies and support in advance of the Army. It was there that Browne's desperate telegram reached him. Coxey immediately hired a carriage and drove all night to intercept his Army at dawn, Saturday, April 14th, as it finally descended from the mountain top, in the well named town of Frostburg (above), just over the Maryland state line. In a perfect bit of historical staging, the Army’s headquarters for the night were in the town’s opera house (below), one of the few buildings not damaged by a tornado which had struck Frostburg the year before.
After listening to several  version of the drama on the road, Coxey stood on a box on the stage (he was not a tall man), and called for a vote for second in command. The results were not what he had hoped for; 158 for The Great Unknown Smith, and just four for Browne. There was an uncomfortable pause, and then Coxey did the greatest thing - the thing that proved him to be a real leader. He said to the men, “I cast 154 votes for Mr. Browne.” It took a few moments for the army to realize the choice they now had to make; give up the march, or give up the Great Unknown Smith. And just as that realization was dawning, into the stunned silence Coxey added, “I further order that the Unknown Smith be forever expelled from the Army.” And he called for an immediate vote of agreement.
A few voices were raised in protest, saying  that if The Great Unknown Smith were expelled, then so should Coxey's eldest son, Jesse Coxey. But even they were disarmed when Coxey  agreed to that logic. And thus so did the Army. The Great Unknown Smith was out. Across the street from the opera house the Great Unknown Smith unloaded again, this time to the press. “I have been deposed by a patent medicine shark, a greasy-coated hypocrite, a seeker for personal advancement.” Like all those caught in the act, Smith’s (actually Bazarro’s) accusations might have been better used as a self portrait.
The next morning Carl Browne called a press conference of his own and revealed what the press already knew, that the Great Unknown Smith was actually A.P. B. Bazarro, a patent medicine salesman and hypocrite. And with that weight lifted, the Army moved on 14 miles to Addison, Maryland.
Twenty years later, Jacob Coxey would explain why he stood up for Carl Browne (above) that cold morning in a half empty opera house, and why he had tolerated the bombast and pretense which Carl Browne exhibited, and why he trusted him despite the man’s less than sterling past. Coxey called Browne “…the most unselfish man of my entire life’s acquaintance. He never gave a thought to pecuniary gain. His whole heart was in the movement to emancipate labor."
The next day, as the march continued into Maryland, the eldest son Jesse Coxey was reinstated on the one (father's) condition, that “he not sulk anymore”. The day after that Coxey’s Army acquired a navy.
Don't speak so loud, or you will be overheard--and I should be ruined. I'm supposed to be a Great Wizard."
"And aren't you?" she asked.
"Not a bit of it, my dear; I'm just a common man."
"You're more than that," said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; "you're a humbug."
"Exactly so!" declared the little man, rubbing his hands together as if it pleased him. "I am a humbug."
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
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