Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Lost America

The Lewis & Clark Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University houses almost all the plant specimens collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey, including many newly discovered species. The federal program Save America’s Treasures paid to rehouse the collection to modern standards.

We don’t usually editorialize or advocate here, but today I’m going to make an exception. As some of our fans may have noticed, blogging hasn’t been as regular around here as our usual standard. The reason has been a time-consuming job search for one-half of the writing team of “Frances Hunter.” Fortunately that’s now resolved. Hopefully that will free up time and emotional energy for fun things like this blog.

Anyone who has taken a peek at the bio section may have noticed that one of us has been fortunate enough to work in a history-related field. As of December 1, that will no longer be the case, for that job fell victim to the budget ax along with so many others in public history.

Consider the current state of this nation’s commitment to our own heritage (thanks to American Heritage magazine for their great editorial roundup of this information):

– Completely eliminated: Save America’s Treasures, the program that saved countless American courthouses, document collections, battleships, historic homes, Native American sites like the Acoma Pueblo, and artifacts like the Gettysburg Cyclorama, the Rosa Parks bus, and the Star-Spangled Banner itself.

– Completely eliminated: Preserve America, which helped small towns and ethnic neighborhoods plan how to preserve entire areas of historic character, developing programs like walking tours, markers, and historic drives.

– Completely eliminated: Teaching American History, which provides grants for public school teachers to undertake intensive study to better teach the American story to kids.

– Completely eliminated: We the People, which funded teacher training, purchased classic books and art for public schools, and sponsored the National Digital Newspaper Project, a program to digitize and put online historic American newspapers from the 1880s to the 1920s.

– Completely eliminated: The National Heritage and Scenic Byways program. Among many others, this ends support for the Heritage Area around the Knife River Village in North Dakota, where Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea, eliminated the chance for a National Heritage Area to preserve Lewis and Clark’s legacy on the West Coast, and ends support for scenic byways along the Lewis & Clark Trail including the Native American Scenic Byway in the Dakotas and the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway in Idaho — not to mention the Natchez Trace.

The Native American Scenic Byway guides visitors through four of the reservations of the Lakota Sioux. It encompasses many of the historic sites of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The program has been eliminated after a 20-year run.

I recently found a reprint of a great book called Lost America, by Constance M. Greiff. Originally published in 1971, Lost America is a pictorial tour of landmark buildings that had been destroyed by neglect and the wrecking ball. In her introduction, Greiff has an excellent analysis of what caused the wholesale destruction of thousands of architectural treasures in our country, particularly from the 1940s to the 1970s. Much of the demolition was the result of a promise made to the nation’s veterans. The GI Bill granted low-cost mortgages to the men who had fought so gallantly in World War II. To make way for the new homes, America’s small towns and villages were converted to suburbs. Urban renewal took much of the rest. After all, what were some crummy old buildings when people needed highways to drive in from their new homes and places to park once they got there?

Greiff identifies a particularly dangerous period for historical sites, writing, “We tend to denigrate the tastes of the generation or two immediately preceding our own at the same time we are attracted to the lifestyle of their predecessors, first, perhaps, as merely amusingly quaint, and then as the object of serious study and admiration … The buildings of [the] past were viewed with contempt as examples of crudity and bad taste. … They were objects to be discarded…” In another book from my library, The Gingerbread Age by John Maass (1957), the author writes of his efforts to photograph America’s Victorian heritage. There was a period of several years where Maass simply could not drive fast enough. He would get wind of a site to photograph and get there only to find out it has been torn down just days before.

The Genie Car Wash sign (1968), Austin, Texas.

My own city is a growing one in which the past is obliterated on an almost daily basis. Recently, citizens did battle to save a vintage neon car wash sign. The passion invoked by such an unremarkable object spoke volumes to the sense of loss experienced by ordinary citizens — again and again supporters  used the sad, desperate words: It’s all that’s left. (The sign was saved.)

The wanton destruction of the post-war era was symbolized most dramatically by the mindless demolition of the fabulous Penn Station in New York, which eventually led to the modern preservation movement. A lot of time has passed since then. The elimination of federal funding for historic preservation says it all about the nation’s current level of commitment to its heritage — it’s not worth a dime. Similarly, states are starving their historic parks and monuments with reduced hours and maintenance, and cutting back on access and preservation of historic archives. Though the battle is ongoing, budget cuts in Georgia aim to eliminate their state archives altogether, ending public access to hundreds of years’ worth of historical documents and artifacts.

A number of Lewis & Clark sites are seriously endangered. Just to cite the most recent example, a high-ranking official of the National Park Service warned that Lewis & Clark National Park in Astoria (site of Fort Clatsop) will be forever changed if a proposed terminal for liquified natural gas is built just three miles away. Visitors will no longer be able to experience the Lower Columbia River with a sense of the beauty that Lewis and Clark experienced.

Paddlers experience the Lower Columbia River Water Trail. Courtesy Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

What do you think? It’s all up to us, and we can’t count on any help from Uncle Sam this time around. If I ever saw a time when “think global, act local” applied, it is in the siege now underway on America’s historical treasures. What books will go unresearched and unwritten when archives are shuttered? What architectural treasures will be neglected, burned, or razed for short-term economic gain? Which of the post-war buildings, now aging themselves, will be labeled monstrosities and meet the fate of their Victorian predecessors? What sites of the Lewis & Clark Trail will be despoiled? What photographs will represent our era in a future Lost America? What will our children and grandchildren say about us?

Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever: Penn Station, 1910-1963. The New York Times wrote, “Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.”

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Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully

Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1821

The last years of Thomas Jefferson’s life were plagued by terrible financial problems. Perpetually in debt because of his loose spending habits and the never-ending construction at Monticello, Jefferson also suffered from lower-than-expected income from the crops he produced on his various plantations. But the ultimate ruinous blow came from an unexpected source: Jefferson’s friend Wilson Cary Nicholas, a former senator and governor of Virginia and president of the Richmond branch of the Bank of the United States.  Jefferson’s involvement with Nicholas would lead to the loss of everything.

In the fall of 1817, Jefferson asked to borrow $6000 from the Bank of the United States, and Nicholas gladly co-signed two separate notes of $3000 each. Six months later, Nicholas asked Jefferson to return the favor and be co-signer on a loan for him – this time two notes of $10,000 each, for the total sum of $20,000. He assured Jefferson that he was worth at least $350,000 and would easily be able to repay the notes, to come due in the fall of 1819.

Nicholas had been a close friend and political supporter of Jefferson’s for years. Jefferson’s beloved grandson Jeff Randolph was married to Nicholas’s daughter. With no reason to doubt Nicholas’s solvency, Jefferson signed the papers “in utter confidence” and the loans were approved.  He seems not to have given the matter much thought.

Wilson Cary Nicholas by Gilbert Stuart

Wilson Cary Nicholas by Gilbert Stuart

Fast-forward to August 1819, when Jefferson received a letter in the mail from Nicholas. Something had gone terribly wrong. Despite his earlier assurances, Nicholas confessed to Jefferson that he had been not been able to keep up with his loan payments. The bank had investigated and found that Nicholas was far from solvent – in fact, rash speculation in western lands had put Nicholas $200,000 in debt. They were calling in the loan.

Jefferson realized immediately that if Nicholas went bankrupt, as co-signer of the loan, he was now on the hook to pay back the money. “He said very little,” Jefferson’s granddaughter wrote, “but his countenance expressed a great deal.” Unfortunately, Jefferson’s next action made a bad situation worse. He asked the bank to extend the term of the loan for a full year, and offered to bring in another co-signer—to whom he would deed land worth $20,000—to help guarantee the loan. The second co-signer was Nicholas’s son-in-law and Jefferson’s grandson, Jeff Randolph.

Wilson Cary Nicholas’s unexpected death  on October 10, 1820, plunged the Jefferson family into an unfathomable financial disaster. In the days before Chapter 11 and other bankruptcy protection laws, the family stood to lose everything. There was no way Jefferson could pay back $20,000 plus interest – about the equivalent of four years of earnings on his farms. But if he defaulted or died – he was then 77 years old – the debt would pass to his grandson, saddling him with a crushing liability.

Thomas Jefferson Randolph by Charles Willson Peale

Thomas Jefferson Randolph by Charles Willson Peale

Desperate, Jefferson conceived of a plan for the family’s salvation that came to him “like an inspiration the realms of bliss,” according to his daughter Martha Randolph. The family could sponsor its own public lottery, selling tickets and offering as a prize some of Jefferson’s farmland that his obligations to the bank left him unable to sell. Jefferson hoped to raise $60,000 from the public raffle, enough to pay off the debts, secure the family’s immediate future, and live comfortably for the remainder of his life. Jefferson even had secret hopes that the Virginia state government would buy all the tickets and burn them in a great patriotic bonfire, allowing him to keep both the land and the money. All he needed was approval from the Virginia legislature.

Unfortunately, that approval was not easily forthcoming. Then as now, “family values” were an important part of political rhetoric, and the lottery Jefferson proposed was considered gambling – and gambling fostered immorality.  Jefferson was crushed by the legislature’s chilly reception. “I see in the failure of this hope a deadly blast to all my peace of mind during my remaining days,” he wrote disconsolately. “I am overwhelmed at the prospect of the situation in which I may leave my family.”

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

In February 1826, the Virginia legislature relented and approved the lottery bill—but with important and chilling alterations. The farmland being offered as a prize would have to be independently appraised to make sure the $60,000 raised did not exceed the value of the prize – which it most certainly did. Therefore, the land prize would not be enough to get the lottery approved. A more attractive prize must be offered – Monticello itself. As a generous concession, the bill would allow Jefferson and Martha to remain in the house for the rest of their lives.

The thought of losing the home was unbearable. Due to the family’s dire financial straits, Monticello was already suffering from lack of upkeep. When the public learned of Jefferson’s plight, many people began to raise money outright and donate it to the Jefferson family. Though touched by these patriotic gestures, Jefferson tried to discourage them because he feared it would divert attention and money from the lottery.

Jefferson did not live to see the outcome. He passed away on July 4, 1826, surrounded by his family, and was buried in the family graveyard. Months later, his family held a public auction in a last-ditch attempt to raise much-needed cash. Over five days in January 1827, they watched forlornly while eager buyers picked through Monticello and carted off everything from Parisian furniture, prints and maps, and stemware to hogs, horses, saddles and ordinary household items. The auction of Jefferson’s slaves was an awful  ordeal, as families that had lived on Monticello and served the Jeffersons for years were sold off and dispersed. It was, Jefferson’s grandson wrote, “a perfect hell of trouble.”

Monticello in ruins, late 19th century

Monticello in ruins, late 19th century

Unfortunately, interest in the lottery quickly waned after Jefferson’s death,  and the idea was abandoned. In July 1828, after laboring heroically for years to save the family from his grandfather’s debts, Jeff Randolph put Monticello up for sale. By the time he finally found a buyer three years later, the mansion was decrepit, dilapidated and a shadow of its former self. The new owner was a druggist from Charlottesville, who purchased the mansion and grounds for $7000, about half of the asking price.

Adding insult to injury, he had poor taste. Proving that blood will tell, Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia wrote sadly: “[I] have some fear that he may disfigure that beautiful & sacred spot by some of that ‘gingerbread work’ which grandpapa used to hold in such contempt.”

More great reading: Marc Leepson’s Saving Monticello

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Today we think of Thomas Jefferson as the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, faced down the Barbary pirates, purchased the Louisiana territory, and sent Lewis and Clark to explore it. But if you had told the average American at the close of his presidency that Jefferson would one day be carved in stone on Mount Rushmore, you would’ve been greeted with howls of derision. By the time he left office, Jefferson was about as popular as a rattlesnake. The reason: he had almost singlehandedly crippled the American economy, while depriving Americans of their civil liberties in a far worse way than John Adams ever dreamed of.

The downfall of Jefferson’s second term began in the spring of 1807, when the British warship Leopard fired on the U.S.S. Chesapeake, killing three Americans, wounding 18, and impressing four sailors alleged to have deserted from the British navy. Outraged, Jefferson promptly ordered all British warships out of American waters, but he knew as well as anyone that the nascent United States could ill afford another war with Great Britain. When England announced its intention to search American ships for deserters even more aggressively, Jefferson decided to act. He rammed through Congress a policy he called “peaceable coercion:” a series of five Embargo Acts, effectively banning American trade with all European powers.

The HMS Leopard, 1807

The HMS Leopard, 1807

Jefferson saw the embargo as a kind of social experiment. He believed that embargo would put the squeeze on both Britain and France by denying them American produce, raw materials, and the American market for their manufactured goods. He also believed that without imported luxuries, the American economy would, of necessity, become more self-sufficient. What he didn’t envision was the catastrophic cost.

Tobacco planters in Jefferson’s native Virginia were among the first to feel the pinch. With sales to European markets outlawed, tobacco glutted the domestic market and rotted in the warehouses. Tobacco prices collapsed, along with the planters’ credit. It was the same story with cotton in the southern states. New England also felt the pain. With imports turned away, ports closed, merchants closed their shops, and tens of thousands of fishermen, sailors, and dockworkers lost their jobs.

Defiance of the embargo acts quickly became widespread. The wealthy defiantly bought imported fineries on the black market, while ships sailing between American ports mysteriously found themselves “blown off course” to Canada, or even all the way across the Atlantic. Several government agents charged with stopping irate American citizens from smuggling goods into Canada resigned in fear of their lives. Even in the highly Democratic-Republican Congress, calls for a repeal of the Embargo Acts rose to a furor.

Smugglers defying the "O Grab Me"In March 1808, with rabid opposition to the embargo swelling all over the country, Jefferson was stricken with an incapacitating stress headache that left him feeble, disabled, and insensible for several weeks. By April, however, he had recovered both his strength and a new resolve. In the words of Alan Pell Crawford, author of Twilight at Monticello, “Jefferson began to enforce the embargo with a zeal that struck even his longtime allies as excessive.” Crawford explains, “What began as a ban on trade with Great Britain and France had escalated into a prohibition against all shipping along the Atlantic coast, including routine commerce between American ports. The movement of vessels on lakes, rivers, and bays without approval was also prohibited … Gunboats could stop at will any boat or ship suspected of unlawful commerce; such vessels would then be held until the president personally authorized their release.”

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Jefferson ordered military authorities to treat smuggling on Lake Champlain as an insurrection. He ordered the Navy into service to blockade American ports and seize suspicious outbound cargoes, and urged that anyone who defied the embargo—or even disagreed with it—be prosecuted for treason, punishable by imprisonment or death. As the economic downturn turned into a depression and protests raged up and down the Atlantic coast, Jefferson expressed disappointment in the uncooperativeness of American citizens. He wrote that he hoped “the most guilty may be marked as examples, and the less so suffer long imprisonment.”

If the embargo was disastrous to the American economy, it was barely felt in England and France. Historian Forrest McDonald likened the embargo to “a flea trying to break up a dogfight by threatening suicide.” Along with the economic consequences, the biggest casualty was Jefferson’s popularity. Despite the election of James Madison as his successor in November 1808, the Democratic-Republicans took a shellacking in the congressional elections. The Federalist party captured 70% of congressional seats in northern states, as well as control of all of the state legislatures in New England.

1807 Embargo cartoon

The hated embargo is finally slain, 1809

In January 1809, the new Congress passed a bill quietly lifting the embargo. The sponsor was the congressman from Jefferson’s own district in Albemarle County, Virginia. A few weeks later, Mr. Jefferson’s presidency—along with his “social experiment” and the greatest disaster of his public career—was over. But impressment of American sailors by British warships went on—and erupted into war three years later.

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