"New York Remembers...Or Does IT?"
Dr. Bruce W. DearstyneThis is the recap by Frank Robinson, of a presentation by Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne at the November 13th, 2011 CDHS monthly meeting.
Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is an adjunct Professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, and previously taught history at various local colleges. His talk was entitled, “New York Remembers . . . Or Does It?”
Dearstyne casts himself as an advocate for New York History – making him something of a rara avis. But he holds that history is not dry and dull, but really full of more entertaining stories than in fiction. Further, he says, the way we think about our past shapes our progress into the future.
Dearstyne went through a laundry list of the ways in which New York has had an outsize role in the nation’s history and culture – but, while New Yorkers are not known for their modesty, when it comes to tooting the state’s historical horn, we are reticent. In comparison other states, like Massachusetts, Virginia, and Franklin, have been more proactive in promoting their historical importance. (A little joke there for history nerds.) In the schools, “social studies” has been pretty much washed out of the curriculum; history washed out of social studies; and state and local stuff washed out of the history syllabus. (One might call it a homeopathic teaching of local history.)
Dearstyne related 3 tales of New York’s historical role. One was the Civil War, wherein the state was not only central in the Union effort, but also in dissent against Lincoln’s policies, the high point perhaps being the 1863 draft riots. Trying to calm things down, Governor Horatio Seymour began by addressing the mob as “my friends” – in modern parlance, a “gaffe” that his political opponents leaped to exploit. But Seymour was undeterred, and in a later speech protested that “we are living under a military government.” Nominated for president in 1868, Seymour was crushed by Ulysses Grant.
In 1895, New York enacted limits on working hours in the baking industry. One baker named Joseph Lochner went to court, arguing that this curtailment of freedom of contract violated the 14th Amendment’s due process protections. The New York courts, led by Chief Judge Alton Parker, rejected Lochner’s challenge. But in 1905, in a 5-4 decision (written by Rufus Peckham, whose career began in Albany), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Lochner, establishing a crucial precedent that for decades would stymie social legislation. Peckham’s decision was overshadowed by Justice Holmes’s trenchant dissent. But not until the 1937 case of West Coast Hotel v. Parrish did the Court reverse Lochner, opening the door to this kind of governmental regulation. (That decision was penned by another New Yorker, Charles Evans Hughes.)
Judge Parker was meanwhile nominated for President in 1904, and was crushed by Theodore Roosevelt, going down in history as one of the most forgotten of all presidential nominees, even more forgotten than Horatio Seymour.
But New York’s history is not all a tale of losers. Dearstyne’s last story concerned aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, a New Yorker whose 1908 flight of “The June Bug” was the first pre-announced and publicly witnessed launch of a heavier-than-air machine. In 1910, Curtiss made the first flight from Albany to New York City, delivering the first Airmail letter; and in 1911 invented naval aviation. Curtiss fought a long patent war against the Wright Brothers, but in an ironic twist of history, their two enterprises ultimately merged to form the Curtiss-Wright aircraft company. And it was a Curtiss plane that was depicted on one of the most famed and valuable postage stamps of all time – the 1918 “inverted Jenny” with the plane shown upside down in a printing error. An example was auctioned in 2007 for $977,500.
In New York – of course.
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