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History Writers Resist Trump

A Collective Blog

Author

Victoria Martínez

Though I am now working on my PhD in history, my blogs represent some of my previous work as a freelance writer and historical researcher.

Lessons from the Nineteenth Century: Immigration, Xenophobia and an Inept President

By Victoria Martínez

Before Lady Liberty officially became “Mother of Exiles” in 1903[1] and subdued xenophobia with the help of her three dragons (sorry, wrong story, that was the Mother of Dragons), the tired and poor huddled masses arriving at America’s teeming shores were greeted less than enthusiastically by nineteenth century anti-immigration extremists. Creating a model that is now experiencing a renaissance, groups of mainly white, Protestant men calling themselves Nativists in honor of their “native” American heritage, and united in their belief that immigrants were taking their jobs, threatening democracy, and bent on imposing Papism, banded together to limit the rights of existing immigrants and slow the inflow of new immigrants.

Political groups like “The Order of the Star Spangled Banner” and “The American Party” glorified bigotry and xenophobia as patriotic pursuits, targeting Irish Catholic, German and Chinese immigrants in particular. Cloaked in an apathy that took for granted the fact that their own immigrant forebears had sought and fought for the freedom of religion and from oppression that they now enjoyed, these self-styled Patriots used their privilege to deny the same freedoms to others. Dubbed the Know Nothing Movement for its members’ public disavowal of its existence, it even claimed as its own an American president: POTUS 13, Millard Fillmore (1800-1874). Basically, a perfect fit for the category: “There is Nothing New Under the Sun.”

Like many Americans with a culturally diverse family tree, it’s a history I find horrifying in a variety of ways. Considering my Dutch ancestors were founders of what is now New York, I shudder to think that perhaps their nineteenth-century descendants stood outside Manhattan’s Castle Garden immigrant processing center shouting abuse like “Schorum!” (that’s Dutch for “bad hombre”) to people like Friedrich Trump when he was admitted as an immigrant in 1885. Or perhaps the great-grandchildren of one of my ancestors who was French by birth but fought bravely for his adopted country against the British in the American Revolution took exception to the fact that Friedrich had surreptitiously left Germany to evade military conscription.

I prefer to think that based on the incredible number of German and Irish “new” immigrants that entered my family tree in the nineteenth century through intermarriage with the Dutch, English and French “old immigrants,” the attitude of my ancestors was rather the opposite. Something more in line with, “We understand that people emigrate from their homeland for a variety of reasons. And although those reasons may sometimes be less than honorable, they rarely include intentionally harming the adopted country. Let’s give everyone a fair chance, especially if we’ve been given one ourselves. Welcome, and good luck.”

In fact, the latter appears to be the kind of treatment someone like Friedrich Trump received in America. He was not subjected to extreme vetting, travel bans, visa revocations, separation from family, deportation, etc. He lived the American Dream, seemingly unfettered by the far-right movement of nineteenth-century bigots wrapped in the American flag. His children and grandchildren were born in the United States of America, completely free to become anything they wanted, including racists, misogynists, xenophobes, and even an American president. But none of that might have happened if the nativist American Party had their way and achieved national power with the successful election of Millard Fillmore in 1856. Remember him? No, nobody ever does. He’s forgettable even when mentioned as recently as three paragraphs ago.

When Fillmore lost his 1844 bid to become governor of New York, he blamed his loss on immigrants, specifically “foreign Catholics.” After becoming vice-president in 1849, he was virtually ignored by President Zachary Taylor. His own rise to the presidency came only when Taylor died suddenly in 1850. His presidency was unremarkable, although his paltry legacy does include such abominations as The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that even free states must capture and return escaped slaves to their masters in slave states. Toward the end of his inherited term of office, his own party refused to nominate him as their candidate in the 1852 election. According to one of his biographers, George Pendle, Fillmore was dubbed by his contemporaries as “inept,” “vacuous” and “doughface.” Pendle wrote: “Fillmore reminds us that the platitude that ‘anyone can be president’ is as much a threat as a promise.”

Possible political redemption came in 1856 when the American Party saw something in him that clearly no one else did. Given his track record, perhaps they figured he would serve as an excellent puppet. Although the few Fillmore biographers seem to agree that he was not a fervent nativist, he nonetheless sold his soul to the party for their support. In 1855, he had taken the secret oath of The Order of The Star Spangled Banner and wrote a letter meant for public consumption that lamented “the corrupting influence which the contest for the foreign vote is exciting upon our election.”[2] By “foreign vote,” he was referring to the vote of naturalized American citizens, clearly implying these votes – like the people who cast them – were tainted in some way. Campaign posters printed by the American Party, such as the one in the featured image, used slogans that were the nineteenth-century equivalent of “America First.”

Luckily, Fillmore and the Know Nothings didn’t have the chance to fulfill their bigoted vision of America. The Fillmore-Donelson ticket carried just one state, Maryland, in electoral votes, and gained only 22 percent of the popular vote. Despite the posturing of extremists like the Know Nothings, it seems that most nineteenth-century Americans held more moderate views of immigration and immigrants. To be sure, mass immigration presented problems and challenges for both immigrants and “natives,” just as it does today, but people appeared to have enough sense to realize that bigotry wasn’t the answer. As it turned out, they were right. It’s safe to say that Americans of Irish, German, Catholic and Chinese descent were woven into the American tapestry just as successfully as the English, Dutch and French had done previously. And I personally have no doubt that with help and support from honorable and introspective “native” Americans, so will modern immigrants.

Although we haven’t been as lucky as our nineteenth-century counterparts in dodging the proverbial presidential bullet, we can only hope that history will repeat itself in another way and resign POTUS 45 to the annals of history much as POTUS 13 has been. According to biographer Robert J. Scarry, an admirer said of Fillmore: “He was the best loser of his day.”[3] In 1988, a Yale history professor wrote in American Heritage Magazine: “to discuss… Millard Fillmore is to overrate [him].” The Official White House website can barely even muster up a kind word: “Millard Fillmore demonstrated that through methodical industry and some competence an uninspiring man could make the American dream come true.”

Since even these statements could be considered glowing endorsements of the current president, let’s hope that the American people have as much sense as they did in the nineteenth century. Simply by rejecting the bigotry, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia of the current administration, we could not only enrich our American tapestry with a new era of immigrants, but also consign the current occupant of The White House to official national disdain.

The featured image is an 1856 American Party campaign poster featuring Millard Fillmore and his running mate, Andrew Jackson Donelson (public domain).

[1] Although Emma Lazarus wrote her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” in 1883 to help raise money for the construction of The Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, it was virtually forgotten until 1901, and the plaque bearing the sonnet wasn’t added to the statue until 1903.

[2] Fillmore, Millard. “Millard Fillmore Papers, Volume Two.” Buffalo Historical Society, 1907.

[3] Scarry, Robert J. “Millard Fillmore.” McFarland & Company Inc., North Carolina, 2001.

The art of toppling a bloated, greedy, dishonest political “boss”

By Victoria Martínez

If history can teach us something right now, it’s that the way to topple a bloated, greedy, inarticulate and dishonest political leader from New York who poses as a populist while perpetuating government cronyism is by revealing him to his base in a way they can understand.

***

Once upon a time (roughly the 1870s to early 1900s), in a period of American history known as the Gilded Age, the main issues dividing the nation were those that, by all rights, should not be the exact same ones we are dealing with today. Namely, racism, immigration-related xenophobia, human and women’s rights injustices, and extreme wealth inequality.

Although technically free, African Americans were subject to widespread and generally socially-acceptable systemic and institutionalized racism. American “nativists” (otherwise known as “old immigrants” from Europe) were concerned by the influx of “new immigrants,” whose cheap labor and “foreign” religious and cultural backgrounds they feared as inherently dangerous to America’s “greatness.” Meanwhile, actual Native Americans were being forced off their land for a variety of shameful reasons, including the building of an oil pipeline a railroad. And increasing numbers of women were fighting to obtain the same rights as men in what was widely lamented as a war on American masculinity.

During this period, more than one third of the nation’s wealth was owned by just two percent of the population, and three quarters of the wealth was held by the top 10 percent.[1] Quite similar, in fact, to our current distribution of wealth, with recent figures showing that the top 20 percent of Americans own more than 84 percent of wealth.[2] Then as now, the United States had one of the highest levels of wealth inequality in the world.

An illustrious era notable for the Second Industrial Revolution, Captains of Industry, and incredible artistic beauty, the Gilded Age is also infamous for unregulated business and industry, worker exploitation, and hazardous working conditions. Then there was the matter of rampant political corruption and cronyism, with a special focus on protecting the interests of big business.

Just as damp, dark places attract mold and bacteria, these conditions were perfect for the proliferation of political machines in America’s big cities. This system of political control gained and maintained power by feigning a populist platform targeted at a rousing a “silent majority.” In this case, politically disenfranchised immigrants who were promised money, jobs and forceful representation in return for votes and support.

Machine bosses and their well (financially)-oiled “machine” of similarly-elected and appointed colleagues would then do just enough to keep their constituency happy while vigorously promoting their own financial and social self-interests. This they accomplished through rigged elections and ballot fraud, cronyism and patronage, graft and bribery, press control and manipulation, and a slew of similarly corrupt tactics.

Although Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago were among the cities with notorious political machines, New York City had arguably the most notorious one of all: Tammany Hall. For almost 200 years, Tammany Hall produced quite a few notable political villains. But William M. Tweed, better known as Boss Tweed (1823-1878), stands out, both on his own “merits” and for the insight his downfall can give us about how to deal a modern incarnation.

A New Yorker by birth with Scottish and Irish ancestry, Boss Tweed was a poorly educated bully with zero knack for subtlety. His success in business was mixed, and he was declared bankrupt on at least one occasion. His suitability as a politician was first recognized when he was forced out of his job as a volunteer fireman from a notoriously violent fire company due to his especially violent behavior. From there, his ascent into politics – culminating in his reign as Tammany boss from the mid-1860s to early-1870s – was a dishonest and brutal one, characterized by levels of corruption, bullying and violence unprecedented even for Tammany Hall.[3]

The “Tweed Ring” controlled the election and appointment of a vast array of public officials who were similarly corrupt, unqualified and incompetent – including state supreme court judges, governors and mayors, city comptrollers, and even the park commissioner – all of whom supported and protected the corrupt dealings of Tweed and Tammany Hall. Tweed and his machine profited enormously from construction projects and city development, as well as from stock holdings and seats on various company boards, and by using Tweed’s own companies for city contracts.

Contemporaries estimated Tweed’s overall theft at between $25 million and $45 million (around $570 million to $1 billion in today’s terms), and later estimates amounted to as much as the equivalent of $4 billion today.

Tweed made no effort to hide his massive personal wealth, proudly living in a mansion on Fifth Avenue and perpetually wearing a stickpin featuring a 10.5 carat diamond. But, then, he really didn’t have to hide it. Enormous effort and sums of money were spent to keep the press from publishing any “fake news” about him and the Tammany Machine. In general, the rich had nothing to lose and were rather in a good position to gain from Tweed and Tammany. Objectors – honest politicians, judges, journalists, contractors, etc. – could usually be bought with cash or patronage.

As for his constituents, Tweed managed to depict himself and the Tammany machine as their champion by effectively using tactics like distraction and hyperbole to keep them satisfied and ignorant of his fraud. At the most basic level, he gave them bread and circuses in the form of financially supporting and promoting excessive drinking, and encouraging cultural and religious turf wars, all of which kept them distracted and occupied.

At a higher level were cases like the “Tweed Charter,” state legislation passed in 1870 under the guise of reform, but which actually gave the Tammany-controlled mayor unprecedented power and the Tweed Ring tremendous financial control, all with zero accountability. One of the few objectors to the charter warned, “[it] is not a popular government; it is not a responsible government; it is a government beyond the control and independent will of the people.”[4] The charter passed easily nonetheless, primarily at the expense of the faithful “silent majority.”

Getting the message across to Tweed’s elective base that their supposedly populist leader had been brazenly deceiving and cheating them required the use of one of the best things to come out of The Gilded Age: art. In this case, editorial cartoons.

Beginning in 1867, Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast had been skewering Tweed and the Tammany machine with a stream of unflattering and revealing illustrations. In a graphic and easy-to-understand format, Nast effectively informed the public of the greed and fraud being perpetuated by Tweed and the Tammany machine. Through caricature, it was much easier to see that the bloated Tweed with his giant, ever-present diamond was far from being a man of the people, and was certainly not serving them.

In August 1870, The New York Times managed to break free from Tweed’s control and began publishing an admirable campaign of investigative journalism against him. But it was only effective up to a point, at least initially, in that it catered largely to the educated “elite” that either weren’t part of his voting base or were somehow complicit. But, seconded by the coverage in the Times, Nast increased the number of cartoons in 1870 and 1871, rattling Tweed enough that he reportedly said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”[5]

Tweed had reason to be worried. According to The New York Times in 1872:

“His [Nast’s] drawings are stuck upon the walls of the poorest dwellings and stored away in the portfolios of the wealthiest connoisseurs. Many people cannot read leading articles, others do not choose to read them, others do not understand them when they have read them. But you cannot help seeing Mr. Nast’s pictures, and when you have seen them you cannot fail to understand them. An artist of this stamp… does more to affect public opinion than a score of writers.”[6]

It was the beginning of the end for Tweed. Eroding support for the boss culminated in the 1871 Orange Riots, composed of Tweed’s constituents. The combined efforts of Nast and The New York Times were redoubled and garnered even more attention. A Nast cartoon  entitled “Let Us Prey” was published on September 13, 1871, and featured Tweed and members of his ring as vultures waiting for the figurative storm to “blow over.”

It didn’t. Boss Tweed was arrested on October 27, 1871.

It took years for full justice to be meted out, and the relaxed approach to Tweed’s incarceration enabled him to escape to Spain where he disguised himself as a seaman. Once again, it was Nast’s cartoons that brought Tweed down, facilitating his identification and leading to his final arrest and imprisonment.

Tweed died in prison on April 12, 1878, but his tactics are alive and well at the highest level of American government today. Fortunately, the last few weeks have demonstrated that there are a great many artists of all types and abilities – from cartoonists to writers to citizens with protest signs – who can, like Nast, practice their art with an eye toward toppling a “boss” of our own era.

Postscript:

“His creed was very simple; it was that money would buy everything. Certainly his confidence was not surprising. He had proved his creed. He had seen money work miracles. He had seen himself, a man of no cleverness and no advantages, rising swiftly by means of it from insignificant poverty to the control of a great party. It had made him master of one of the great cities of the world. It had secured for him Governors, Legislatures, councils, and legal and executive authorities of every kind. He invested in land and judges. He bought dogs and lawyers. He silenced the press with a golden muzzle and money made his will law.” – George William Curtis, editor of Harper’s Weekly, about Boss Tweed (1874).[7]

The featured image is one of Thomas Nast’s political cartoons featuring Boss Tweed, entitled “The ‘Brains’,”  from the October 21, 1871 issue of Harper’s Weekly (public domain image).

[1] Tindall, George Brown and Shi, David E. America: A Narrative History (Brief Ninth Edition) (Vol. 2). W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, p. 589.

[2] Fitz, Nicholas. “Economic Inequality: It’s Far Worse Than You Think.” Scientific American, 31 March 2015:  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/economic-inequality-it-s-far-worse-than-you-think/.

[3] Burrows, Edwin G. & Wallace, Mike, Gotham. A History of New York City to 1898, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[4] Adler, John. Doomed by Cartoon, New York: Morgan James Publishing, LLC, 2008.

[5] Wingate, Charles F. “Article IV: An Episode in Municipal Government.” The North American Review, July 1875.

[6] Adler

[7] Adler

History Writing as Political Resistance

Welcome to the History Writers Resist Trump blog.

As we begin posting our individual contributions, let me get a couple of things out of the way.

First, our goal is not to prove Godwin’s Law[i] or promulgate the Reductio ad Hitlerum[ii]. In other words, we are not here solely to draw correlations between President Trump and Adolf Hitler or his administration and the Nazis. I’m not saying such comparisons won’t be made here, because they probably will; but, as Godwin himself said, “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler when you talk about Trump.”[iii]

Rather, we aim to contextualize what is currently happening at the highest levels of our government with our knowledge of historical people and events across all time periods and nations. In the process, we hope to create a contemporaneous record of events as they happen.

Second, not all of us think that the joining together of the name “Donald J. Trump” with the title “President of the United States of America” signals The End Times. That I’m aware of, none of us is building a literal or political fallout shelter, and the only weapons and ammunition we are stockpiling most likely take the form of books and knowledge. Although one among us attended the Women’s March on Washington and another enjoys “responding” to posts on The White House website, we are certainly not “so-called” anarchists (professional or otherwise), thugs or paid protestors (we protest for free). We are not even all deeply political per se.

What we are is a group of history writers and researchers who look upon the policies and behavior of President Trump and his administration with deep concern and trepidation. Thus, we have decided to use the tools most naturally available to us to resist what we view as, among other things, infringing on human rights, violating the Constitution of the United States of America, and contradicting the principles on which our country was founded.

My personal hope is that our varied political sentiments within this political spectrum combined with our individual studies of history will create a rich collection of narratives that is a credit to the tradition of writing as political resistance.

Victoria Martínez
Blog founder, admin and contributor

[i] “The theory that as an online discussion progresses, it becomes inevitable that someone or something will eventually be compared to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis, regardless of the original topic.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

[ii] Pseudo-Latin phrase coined by Leo Strauss in 1951 that translates to “Reduction to Hilter,” sometimes also known as “The Nazi Card” or “The Hitler Card.”

[iii] Godwin, Mike, “Sure, call Trump a Nazi. Just make sure you know what you’re talking about,” The Washington Post (14 December 2015).

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