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History Briefs 2016 - 2017
By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016-2017, All Rights Reserved

Editor's Note: Since 2007, each Roundtable meeting has opened with a 'History Brief' presented by the Roundtable Historian, each 'brief' providing a small glimpse into a less-explored corner of the story of the Civil War. This page collects the History Briefs from this particular Roundtable season.
Past Briefs:
2007-2008 2008-2009 2009-2010
2010-2011 2011-2012 2012-2013
2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016
2016-2017 . .

September

The First First Lady

September 14, 2016 was the date of the first meeting in the presidency of the second woman president in the history of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. In recognition of that milestone, this history brief is about the first first lady. The obvious person to have the distinction of being the first first lady is Martha Washington, the wife of the first president of the United States. However, Martha Washington was never called first lady while her husband served as president. In fact, Martha Washington was typically called Lady Washington, a name that she reputedly expressed a preference for. More than 40 years after Martha Washington's death, an article by a poet named Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney complimented Martha Washington for never taking on an air of pretentiousness despite her husband's lofty stature. The compliment read, "The first lady of the nation still preserved the habits of early life." Although the title of first lady was applied to Martha Washington in this article, this was done decades after her death, and there is no evidence that this title was ever used for Martha Washington while her husband was president.

Dolley Madison was another presidential wife in our nation's early history to whom the title first lady may have been applied. This may have occurred when President Zachary Taylor reputedly eulogized Dolley Madison in 1849 by calling her "the first lady of the land for half a century." However, no written documentation exists for this statement, and even if the statement is factual, the comment was made many years after Dolley Madison's husband was president. During James Madison's presidency, his wife was called Presidentess or Presidentress, not first lady.

Based on available evidence, the first person to whom the title first lady was applied while she was living in the White House was Harriet Lane. Harriet was not the wife of a president, but the niece of President James Buchanan, the president who preceded Abraham Lincoln. Harriet filled the role of first lady for her uncle during his presidency, because Buchanan was a bachelor his whole life. Due to Harriet Lane's widespread popularity during her uncle's presidency, Harper's Weekly published a picture of her on May 8, 1858 and referred to her as "Our Lady of the White House," which sounds like a title that would be given to Mary, the mother of Jesus, if her husband, Joseph, had ever been president of the United States. On March 31, 1860, during the last year of Buchanan's presidency, a full-page engraving of Harriet appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. The caption accompanying the engraving praised Harriet by stating, "The subject of our illustration, from the semi-official position which she has long sustained with so much honor to herself and her country, may justly be termed the first lady of the land." This was, as far as is known, the first time that the title first lady was applied to a woman during the time that she lived in the White House. After the Civil War, the title grew in popularity and came to be the exclusive term used for the wife of the president. However, Harriet Lane, who was not the president's wife, but filled the role of White House hostess during her uncle's presidency, was the first woman to whom this title was applied while she lived in the White House.

Harriet Lane came to be the White House hostess because of the deaths of her parents when she was a child. She was born on May 9, 1830 in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, which is about 35 miles due west of Gettysburg. When Harriet was nine, her mother, who was the younger sister of James Buchanan, died. Two years later Harriet's father died, and she requested that her uncle, James Buchanan, be appointed her legal guardian. Buchanan diligently oversaw his niece's education by sending her to excellent schools, where she excelled in her studies of history, astronomy, writing, French, arithmetic, and chemistry. When Buchanan became secretary of state under James Polk, Harriet Lane, at the age of 15, lived in Washington. During this time she was introduced to Washington society and politics, and at this young age she began to become educated in them. The first known photograph of Harriet was taken while she lived in Washington. The date of the photograph is not known with certainty, but it was around 1845, and it is of a group of people that includes Harriet Lane, James Buchanan, President and Mrs. Polk, and Dolley Madison. After the conclusion of her formal education, Harriet continued to grow in knowledge about matters of national importance, in part by sitting in on meetings that her uncle conducted at their residence. When Buchanan served as minister to the United Kingdom during the presidency of Franklin Pierce, Harriet, at the age of 24, went to live with her uncle in London, where she not only learned the particulars of European society and culture and the nuances of social functions, but also befriended Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, both of whom found the young woman to be intelligent, knowledgeable, and engaging. Harriet Lane so endeared herself to Queen Victoria that she routinely referred to Harriet as "dear Miss Lane." Throughout the years prior to Buchanan's campaign for the presidency, he often discussed current issues with his niece and sought her opinion, so much so that Harriet became Buchanan's primary confidante.

At the inauguration ball following her uncle's election as president, Harriet Lane caused a stir by wearing a gown that was in the European style with a much lower neckline than was worn in the U.S. This choice of gown was, in a sense, a signal that the White House would no longer be under the pall of the perpetually mournful Jane Pierce, the wife of the previous president, whose three sons all died in childhood prior to Franklin Pierce taking office as president. During the Buchanan presidency dinner parties again took place in the White House, and Harriet was responsible for their planning. Using what she had learned in London as a guide, she oversaw gatherings that played a large role in changing the gloomy mood in Washington society that had prevailed during the Pierce presidency. Harriet also deftly set up seating arrangements for dinner parties that gave appropriate and expected seating precedence to each guest while maintaining distance between political adversaries, which was a very difficult task during this time of extreme sectional tension.

Harriet Lane's cheerfulness and poise led to her popularity throughout the U.S., with women copying her clothing and her unelaborate hair style. In physical appearance she has been described as having hair that was "bright, reddish-brown, full and shiny," "a robust physicality," "healthy, flushed skin," and "a more muscularly developed neck, back, and arms which were visibly displayed by the clothing style she invariably wore at formal public occasions." Harriet also displayed traits that were progressive for her time. For example, during an 1860 visit to Washington by the Prince of Wales, who had befriended Harriet while she was living in London, Harriet and the prince competed against each other in a game of tenpins, which breached the socially accepted norm of that time that women should not publicly display physical prowess, particularly in competing against a man. Moreover, Harriet was victorious over the prince in their game of bowling. Harriet Lane's popularity led to the misconception that a popular song of that time, "Listen to the Mockingbird," was written for her. This misconception came about because the woman in the song is referred to as Hal, which was Harriet's nickname. Although the song had not been written for Harriet, a bandleader at one White House party dedicated the song to her. (As an aside, a comical rendition of "Listen to the Mockingbird," played at a rapid pace and with chirping birds in the background, was used as the opening music for some Three Stooges episodes.

Planning dinner parties at the White House was not Harriet Lane's only activity during her uncle's presidency. There is evidence that she lent public support to several social welfare efforts, such as improving living conditions on Native American reservations, establishment of a hospital for the indigent, and prison reform. After her time in the White House, Harriet gave abundant financial support to some important civic endeavors. In 1866, at the age of 36, which was significantly older than usual for women of her time, Harriet Lane married Henry Elliott Johnston, who was a banker, and the couple went on to have two sons. Two years after Harriet's wedding, James Buchanan died, and then from 1881 to 1884 Harriet lost both of her sons and her husband to death, which left her a widow without any of her immediate family. Undeterred by these personal losses, Harriet Lane Johnston used both her inheritance from her uncle and her family wealth to contribute to several projects. She donated funds for the establishment of the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, which was affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and which was the first hospital in the country devoted exclusively to pediatric medicine. This facility still operates as the Harriet Lane Clinic. Since 1950 Johns Hopkins Hospital has published the Harriet Lane Handbook, which is a highly regarded manual for pediatric care and is now in its 20th edition. In her will Harriet bequeathed funds for the establishment and construction of a school on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, which became St. Albans School. She also willed that her art collection be made available for public use, and her collection was given to the Smithsonian Institution.

One of Harriet Lane Johnston's donations was met less than enthusiastically, specifically her bequest for a monument in Washington to her uncle, James Buchanan. In spite of the widespread negative opinion about Buchanan, Harriet remained loyal to her uncle and bequeathed funds for construction of a monument to him. Harriet died in 1903 on the day before our nation's 127th birthday, and she attached a 15-year deadline to her bequest for the monument to James Buchanan. For many years Congress failed to act on it, and at one point Senator Henry Cabot Lodge railed against building the monument by claiming that it would honor someone "upon whom rests the shadow of disloyalty in the great office to which he was elected." Congress finally passed legislation authorizing construction of the monument six days prior to the deadline, and the legislation was signed by Woodrow Wilson. The monument to James Buchanan, which was unveiled in 1930, is in Meridian Hill Park. The lofty inscription on the monument reads, "The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law." There can be and certainly was much disagreement about the building of a monument to James Buchanan. But Buchanan nurtured his niece intellectually and socially, he played an important role in her precocious and consummate maturity and in her enlightened attitudes, and he inculcated in her a sincere and deep-seated magnanimity and an active and empathetic concern for the less fortunate. As such, Buchanan contributed significantly to Harriet becoming the great woman that she was. Hence, the James Buchanan Memorial can be viewed as a monument to Harriet Lane Johnston as much as a monument to her uncle.

Standing in the shadow of someone who was great can obscure a person’s own greatness, but so too can standing in the shadow of someone who was inept. This was the familial burden that befell Harriet Lane Johnston. It certainly was not her fault that she was the niece of one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Buchanan’s incompetence as president should in no way prejudice his niece’s exemplary legacy, which deserves to stand on its own. Because James Buchanan was a woefully ineffective president, Harriet Lane Johnston's legacy is often overlooked due to our and history’s tendency to shine a spotlight on the exceptional rather than on the inadequate. But Harriet Lane Johnston was exceptional, and she merits not just our and history’s attention, but our and history’s admiration for all of her superb accomplishments. Although Harriet is widely considered to be the first person to bear the title of first lady, she was not a first lady in the typical sense of being the wife of a U.S. president. Nevertheless, Harriet Lane Johnston’s remarkable legacy of graciousness, industriousness, intellectuality, and philanthropy are not only a record that makes her truly deserving of the title first lady, but also a model that every first lady should seek to emulate.

 


Harriet Lane
James Buchanan
 
 
 
 

November…

The Union's NBA Regiment

Prior to the Cleveland Cavaliers' astonishing and (dare it be said) historic championship that they won in June 2016, the last Cleveland team to win a championship in one of the major sports was the Cleveland Browns in 1964. Unfortunately for Cleveland sports fans, the Indians did not add a second championship to Cleveland in 2016, but at least the Cavaliers ended the 52-year drought that existed since the Cleveland Browns 1964 championship. As that Browns team was preparing to defend its championship in the 1965 season, the team's head coach, Blanton Collier, reportedly told the players a sports aphorism which perhaps not everyone agrees with, and which, for that matter, may not be true. Collier said this to the team in an attempt to motivate the players so that they would not become complacent during the season that followed their championship. Collier told the team that defending a championship is more difficult than winning a championship. On October 25, 2016 the Cavaliers raised their championship banner and began defense of their championship.

If Collier is correct about defending a championship, then the Cavaliers will need as much if not more effort and focus as they gave in the previous season, and some additional personnel might also be beneficial. In order to bolster the Cavaliers' fortunes in defending their championship, one place for them to look is a particular Civil War regiment: the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This regiment reputedly had the greatest average height of any regiment in the Civil War. In particular, Company F contained 80 men who were over 6 feet in height, while the average height for Civil War soldiers was only 5 feet, 8 inches, which gives this company the appropriate physical stature for the National Basketball Association. One member of Company F, David Van Buskirk, who was the grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier, was 6 feet, 10˝ inches tall, and he reputedly weighed 380 pounds. Van Buskirk was the tallest man in the Union army, and despite his large size he was never wounded even though his regiment participated in some very intense fighting.

The 27th Indiana consisted of men from south-central counties of the state, and it was organized in September 1861. While the regiment was being organized, Peter Kop, a Bloomington resident who himself was over 6 feet, 4 inches, saw David Van Buskirk and his unusually tall brothers and decided to organize a company of very tall men. This became Company F. After the 27th Indiana was mustered into the Union army, it had the misfortune of being assigned to the Shenandoah army that was under the command of Nathaniel Banks, and it had the additional misfortune of facing the army that was commanded by Stonewall Jackson.

The first major action that the 27th Indiana experienced was at the first battle of Winchester, which was one of Stonewall's victories during his Valley campaign. The 27th Indiana suffered five deaths and 62 prisoners, including David Van Buskirk, who was imprisoned in Libby Prison. Van Buskirk's exceptionally large size drew so much attention to him that he was visited by none other than Confederate President Jefferson Davis. During an exchange between Davis and Van Buskirk, Davis reputedly asked the large Union prisoner about his home and family. Among other personal vignettes, the 6-foot, 10˝-inch Van Buskirk told the Confederate president that when he left with his unit, his sisters "all walked up, leaned down, and kissed me on the top of the head." (If Van Buskirk has the necessary physical stature for the NBA, then his sisters seem like good candidates for the WNBA.) While Van Buskirk was a prisoner of war, his captors used him to raise funds by putting him on display. For a fee people could look at the large Yankee prisoner. Although this was no doubt embarrassing for Van Buskirk, it allowed him to survive as a prisoner of war.

During the time that Van Buskirk was being gazed at by many Confederate gawkers, some of his regimental comrades did what the 27th Indiana is most known for. In late summer of 1862 the 27th Indiana was assigned to the XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac. On September 13, 1862, while the 27th Indiana was on picket duty near Frederick, Maryland, some members of Company F were resting in a field and noticed three cigars wrapped in papers. While the cigars were initially the main focus of the men, their immediate superior, First Sergeant John Bloss, examined the papers and saw that they contained writing of a military nature. In fact, the papers were orders from Robert E. Lee that directed the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia during the beginning of Lee's first invasion of the North. Bloss ordered that the packet, including the cigars, be reassembled as it had been found and then had the packet sent up the chain of command. The orders that were in the packet, Lee's Special Orders No. 191, eventually made their way to George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and their fortuitous finding by men of the 27th Indiana played a prominent role in the outcome of the battle of Antietam. It is not known what happened to the cigars.

At the battle of Antietam the 27th Indiana fought in Miller's cornfield, where it contributed to stopping an advance by the Confederates. In this battle the 27th Indiana lost 41 killed and 168 wounded, which gives evidence of the intensity of the fighting in which the regiment was engaged. The 27th Indiana did not see action at Fredericksburg due to the late arrival of the XII Corps, but at Chancellorsville the XII Corps, including the 27th Indiana, was heavily engaged. At Chancellorsville the XII Corps was positioned near the XI Corps, which took the full brunt of Stonewall's flank attack. The brigade that included the 27th Indiana played an important role in halting that Confederate flank attack, and during the battle of Chancellorsville the 27th Indiana suffered 36 killed and 114 wounded. The 27th Indiana also fought at Gettysburg, by which time David Van Buskirk had rejoined his regiment after being exchanged. The 27th Indiana took part in intense fighting on Culp's Hill, in particular on the third day when it was part of an attack that disrupted the coordination between Pickett's Charge and a planned attack by Richard Ewell's II Corps. A few weeks after the battle of Gettysburg the 27th Indiana was sent on detached duty to New York City to assist in maintaining order after the New York City draft riots. In late September 1863 the regiment was among the troops that were sent to reinforce the besieged Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. From that point until the end of its service, the 27th Indiana participated in the Atlanta campaign and the siege and occupation of Atlanta. On November 4, 1864, four days before the presidential election, the 27th Indiana mustered out.

The 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment is most widely known in association with Robert E. Lee's Special Orders No. 191, and it is also famous for the large number of unusually tall men in its ranks. But the focus on a fortuitous occurrence and a physical oddity does an injustice to the gallant and resolute service that the regiment gave toward the preservation of the Union. Of the original members of the 27th Indiana, 169 lost their lives in combat, 133 died of disease, and 706 were casualties at some time in the war. The regiment never lost a flag, nor did it ever lose a cannon that was under its protection. One author wrote of the 27th Indiana, "Without fancy names or fancy hats, the 27th contributed blood and immeasurable service," while another author called the 27th Indiana "arguably one of the most successful and storied regiments to participate in the Civil War." Many of the regiment's members have the height needed for the NBA, especially David Van Buskirk and his comrades in Company F. Because of this, and because the men of the 27th Indiana had it in them to display such exceptional valor and determination in defending the Union, these men can certainly help the Cleveland Cavaliers defend their championship.

 


David Van Buskirk
 
 
 
 
 

December

A Hanukkah Gift for All Americans

American men who were born between 1944 and 1950 were automatically entered into the first of seven lotteries in which entrants were hoping that they did not receive a number that put them at or near the top of the list. This lottery, which was held on December 1, 1969, was the first Selective Service draft lottery of the Vietnam War, and in that and the subsequent lotteries the order in which draft-eligible men would be drafted was randomly assigned based on birthdates. One of the jokes that came out of that lottery was that Jesus Christ had number 84 in the Selective Service draft order, because number 84 was the number that was drawn for December 25. The birth date that led to Jesus receiving that number one of the most important religious holidays in Christianity. There is compelling evidence that the birth of Jesus did not occur in December, which not only means that Jesus should actually have received a different draft number, but also makes this religious holiday misplaced, although that birth is celebrated on December 25 nonetheless.

There is another important religious holiday that often begins in December, namely Hanukkah. Many traditions are associated with the celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah, and in light of the tradition of gift-giving, it is appropriate during the month of December for Civil War enthusiasts to remember a Jewish man named Uriah P. Levy. Levy has only scant connections to the Civil War, for example the year of his death, which was 1862. But Levy's death was not due to any combat, because he saw no combat in the Civil War. Levy did, however, have a distinguished military career, and he has some notable legacies that came from his military service. One of these legacies is that he worked assiduously against anti-Semitism in the branch of the military in which he served. Levy also left a monumental legacy for all of us that fits extremely well with the efforts at historical preservation that Civil War enthusiasts consider essential.

Uriah Levy was born on April 22, 1792 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Michael and Rachel Levy. Uriah's father served in the Revolutionary War, as did his maternal grandfather, Jonas Phillips, who fathered 21 children (obviously taking to heart the verse from Genesis to be fruitful and multiply). Jonas Phillips was staunchly patriotic to the American cause and fervently devoted to his Jewish heritage. Both of these traits strongly influenced Uriah Levy, who came to embrace similar sentiments. Uriah also developed a love for the sea. In 1806, when Uriah was 14, his father arranged a four-year apprenticeship for Uriah with a prominent Philadelphia ship-owner, during which Uriah became educated in the art of sailing aboard large ships. By the age of 19, he had earned enough money to become part owner of a trading ship named the George Washington, which was named after not the first U.S. president, but bore the two first names of Uriah's partners, George Mesoncourt and Washington Garrison. This business allowed Uriah to hone his maritime skills, which was helpful in the next phase of his life.

When the War of 1812 began, Levy applied for and received a commission in the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the USS Argus, which, coincidentally, had originally been named the Merrimack. During the first several months of the war, the Argus was stationed off the Atlantic coast. But her greatest contribution to the war effort came when she raided British shipping in the English Channel. In one month of raiding, the Argus captured and burned 19 merchant ships. On August 14, 1813 the Argus was engaged by a British warship and was captured in a battle in which the captain of the Argus was mortally wounded. Most of the ship's crew, including Uriah Levy, were taken prisoner, and Levy remained a prisoner in Britain until the end of the war.

After the war Levy served aboard a number of Navy ships including the USS Franklin, the USS United States, and the USS Cyane. It was fitting that Levy served on the Franklin, because this was the first ship to be built at the naval yard in Levy's hometown of Philadelphia. The United States has an interesting Civil War history in that it was captured by the Confederacy and renamed with the seemingly contradictory name CSS United States. The Cyane was originally a British warship that was captured near the end of the War of 1812 by the USS Constitution and was purchased by the U.S. Navy shortly after the war.

During the period of Levy's life following the War of 1812, his naval career was intensely frustrating for him. He faced numerous verbal insults and slow promotions in rank, both of which he believed to be the result of his ethnicity. Not one to back down from an insult, Levy, who has been described as quick-tempered and pugnacious, engaged in numerous fights with comrades who Levy felt insulted him. Levy even killed another officer who challenged him to a duel, although according to an account of the incident, Levy went to great lengths to resolve the situation peacefully, including firing into the air several times during the duel. Because of his many instances of physical altercations, Levy was court-martialed six times, and he received three presidential pardons after courts-martial ruled against him, two pardons from James Monroe and one from John Tyler.

In spite of these difficulties Levy was devoted to his service in the Navy, and an incident that occurred in 1825 when Levy was serving on the Cyane demonstrates how devoted he was. While the ship was in port in Brazil, Levy watched as a junior officer from the Cyane intervened in a dispute that involved a Brazilian military officer. At one point the Brazilian officer drew a saber and slashed at the junior officer. Levy stepped in and deflected the saber and in so doing was slashed on the wrist. The emperor of Brazil was told of the incident and was so impressed by Levy's bravery that he offered Levy a commission in the Brazilian navy on a new vessel. Levy politely declined and reputedly answered that he would rather be a cabin boy in the U.S. Navy than an admiral in any other navy in the world.

Levy's later service in the Navy was marked by two milestones. Early in his career when Levy was serving on the United States, he witnessed a flogging for the first time. Although flogging was standard punishment in the Navy at that time, Levy thought that the practice was barbaric and ineffective. In 1837 Levy was given command of the USS Vandalia. As commander of the Vandalia Levy discontinued the use of flogging as a punishment and employed different measures. Levy also campaigned to have flogging outlawed in the Navy, but there was stiff resistance to this. In 1850 the practice of flogging was banned by Congress, although it required a legislative maneuver that is often criticized nowadays. Senator John Hale of New Hampshire attached a rider banning flogging to the 1850 naval appropriations bill, and when that bill passed Congress, flogging was no longer allowed in the Navy.

Levy's other milestone occurred a little over a year before the firing on Fort Sumter. On February 21, 1860 James Buchanan appointed Levy to command the Mediterranean fleet. As a fleet commander, Levy received the title of commodore, the first Jew to be named a commodore in the U.S. Navy. Levy held this post for less than five months, after which Abraham Lincoln named Levy to head the naval court-martial board. It was ironic that this was to be the last naval service for someone who had been court-martialed six times. Early in 1862 Levy contracted pneumonia and died on March 22, 1862. Uriah Levy's distinguished service in the U.S. Navy led to the naming of a World War II destroyer escort after him. In addition, the Jewish chapel in the naval station at Norfolk, Virginia is named after him, as is the Jewish center and chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Naming the two Jewish chapels after Uriah Levy is quite fitting in light of a remark that Levy reputedly made to a fellow officer who insulted Levy for being Jewish. To this insult Levy replied, "That I am a Jew, I neither deny nor regret."

While Uriah Levy has exceptional legacies from his service in the Navy, Levy's most far-reaching legacy involves one of the Founding Fathers. Levy was an ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson and said about Jefferson, "I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history, the author of the Declaration and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans." Because of his admiration for Thomas Jefferson, Uriah Levy, who became wealthy through real estate investments in New York City, was instrumental in two notable monuments to the author of the Declaration of Independence. The first monument is a bronze statue of Jefferson, which Levy funded and presented to Congress in 1834. The statue stands in the rotunda of the capitol in Washington, D.C. and is the only statue in the rotunda that was paid for with private funds. Even more impressive than that, Levy purchased and restored Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.

Because of the Jefferson family's financial difficulties, Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Martha, was forced to sell Monticello after her father's death. The new owner, James Barclay, intended to convert the estate into a silkworm farm. Even before Barclay had purchased Monticello, it had fallen into disrepair, and this condition only worsened during Barclay's ownership. Levy purchased Monticello from Barclay in 1834 for $2,700 and then oversaw its restoration, although he did not live to see the restoration completed. This restoration was interrupted by the Civil War, during which the Confederate government seized Monticello and sold it. After the Civil War, Levy's heirs recovered the property, and the restoration of Monticello was completed under the supervision of Levy's nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, who served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1923 Jefferson Monroe Levy sold Monticello to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation for $500,000. This foundation, which is now known as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, currently owns and maintains Monticello.

Of all Uriah Levy's legacies, the one that has the most far-reaching effects is his salvaging of Monticello. Without Levy's preservation efforts, it is not far-fetched to believe that Monticello would have been lost to posterity, in the same way that portions of Civil War battlefields have been lost. Because of his strong admiration for Thomas Jefferson, Uriah Levy preserved for all Americans the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence, and Monticello now stands as an enduring monument to the Founding Father who was the official voice of the movement that produced the United States of America. It is appropriate to remember and acknowledge Levy's preservation of Monticello during the month of December, because December has become the month of gift-giving due to the two religious holidays that fall in December, and Levy's preservation of Monticello is a gift to all of us. In light of Levy's ethnicity and religion and his deep devotion to them, Levy's gift of Monticello is not a Christmas present, but a Hanukkah gift.

 


Uriah P. Levy
 
 
 
 
 

February

Rosa Parks' Historical Rhyme

There is a witty quote about history repeating itself, which conveys the notion that history repeats itself in a poetic way. The quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, although there is no evidence that Mark Twain ever said or wrote it. It is easy to believe that this is a Mark Twain quote, because its pithiness sounds like Mark Twain.  This quote exists in a few different forms with slightly different wording, but all of the versions of this quote convey the same notion.

One version of the quote states, "History does not repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme."  This notion was expressed in a more sublime if less succinct way in the October 1845 issue of a religious periodical named The Christian Remembrancer.  (As an aside, when the October 1845 issue of The Christian Remembrancer was published, Mark Twain was one month shy of his tenth birthday, so unless he was spouting witticisms as a young boy, then the notion about history rhyming was in print long before Mark Twain began to dispense creatively crafted aphorisms, which means that he almost certainly did not originate this notion.)  The rendering of this notion that appeared in The Christian Remembrancer reads, "History repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off in a mystic rhyme; ages are prototypes of other ages, and the winding course of time brings us round to the same spot again."  The statement about history rhyming rather than repeating is a clever way of expressing the fact that many events in history bear strong resemblance to earlier events.  

Whoever rightfully deserves credit for originating this notion, it applies in a fascinating way to a person who is familiar to virtually everyone, namely Rosa Parks.  Almost everyone knows about Rosa Parks and is familiar with what she did to earn her place in history, how, on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white person and move further into the back of the bus where blacks were required to sit.  More than 100 years before Rosa Parks took a stand by not relinquishing her seat, a person who is Rosa Parks' historical rhyme took a similar stand.  What's more, this incident, which happened on July 16, 1854, occurred almost 900 miles northeast of Montgomery, Alabama in a place that was never part of the Confederacy.

The person whose actions foreshadowed those of Rosa Parks is Elizabeth Jennings.  She was born into a family of free blacks in New York City.  Elizabeth's exact birthdate is unknown, and there is even conflicting information about the year of her birth.  Based on available information she was born between 1826 and 1830.  Her father was Thomas Jennings, who was a prominent member of the black community in New York City.  He was a tailor who received a patent for a dry cleaning process and is reputedly the first African-American to receive a U.S. patent.  Elizabeth's mother was also named Elizabeth, and the elder Elizabeth was a vocal advocate for the rights of blacks, particularly black women.  She is best known for an 1837 speech that she delivered, which was titled "On the Cultivation of Black Women's Minds."  In this speech, she counseled her listeners that failure to nurture the intellect will cause blacks to remain in a lower social status than whites.  In light of the parents who raised her, the younger Elizabeth received a thorough education and grew up in an environment of notable accomplishments and of strenuous advocacy for civil rights.

Like her parents, Elizabeth was very active in her church.  When Elizabeth was in her mid-20s she was the organist at her church, and on Sunday, July 16, 1854 she was running late for church services.  Elizabeth and a friend named Sarah Adams were at the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets when they hailed a streetcar.  Streetcars in New York City at that time were horse-drawn vehicles that ran on rails, and only a few streetcars were designated for "colored persons." Because Elizabeth was running late, she did not wait for a streetcar that displayed a sign indicating that she was allowed to ride in the car.  She simply boarded the first car that arrived, and as it happened that streetcar was for whites only.  After Elizabeth and her friend boarded the car, the conductor ordered the two women off.  Elizabeth refused to leave the car, and the conductor then attempted to physically remove her.  According to Elizabeth's account of the incident, she clung to a window frame, and after the conductor pried her hand off the frame, she grabbed the conductor's coat and held it tightly.  The conductor told the driver to drive quickly, pick up no more passengers, and continue driving until they saw a police officer.  When an officer was spotted, he joined the fray, and with his assistance Elizabeth was removed from the streetcar.  Elizabeth later claimed that the officer "pushed me down, and tauntingly told me to get redress if I could."

Elizabeth and her parents were not the type to quietly tolerate the kind of treatment that Elizabeth received that day, and with or without the added incentive provided by the police officer's remark, they did not hesitate to seek redress.  A letter that Elizabeth wrote describing the incident was read at her church, and once news of the incident began to spread, there was outrage within the black community.  Elizabeth's letter was published by Frederick Douglass in his newspaper and by Horace Greeley in the New-York Tribune.  With her parents' urging and support, Elizabeth sued the streetcar company.  Elizabeth's father engaged the services of a white law firm, and Elizabeth was represented in court by the firm's junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, who later in his life held a position of greater authority than junior partner in a law firm.    Elizabeth won her case against the streetcar company, and the court awarded her $250.  Presiding Judge William Rockwell stated that the streetcar company was "liable for the acts of their agents, whether committed carelessly and negligently, or willfully and maliciously."  The judge also declared, in a less than complimentary statement, "Colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence."  It is unclear if the judge felt that this statement also applied to whites, or if inebriated, misbehaving, diseased whites were allowed to ride on streetcars.  Nevertheless, the streetcar company ended its policy of segregated cars on the day following the court's ruling, and this ruling led to all streetcar companies in New York City putting an end to segregated cars within several years.

Not much is known about Elizabeth Jennings' life after the incident on the streetcar.  She married Charles Graham, and they had a son who was named Thomas, the same name as Elizabeth's father.  Their son died at the age of one in 1863 and was laid to rest in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn during the time that New York City was recovering from the draft riots.  Elizabeth's husband, Charles, died five years later.  Elizabeth had been a teacher most of her adult life, and she eventually established a kindergarten for black children in her home. Elizabeth Jennings Graham died on June 5, 1901 and is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery with her husband and son.  One of Elizabeth's legacies is that an area along Park Row in New York City is now named Elizabeth Jennings Place.  The movement which led to this was initiated in 2007 by grade school students in New York City.

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In an article which appeared in 1976 in American Quarterly, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote, "Well-behaved women seldom make history."  This statement certainly applies to Elizabeth Jennings and Rosa Parks, both of whom made history by disobeying rules.  When Elizabeth Jennings refused to leave a streetcar in New York City, she had no way of knowing that 101 years later a black woman would engage in a similar defiant act on a bus almost 900 miles away in Montgomery, Alabama.  Elizabeth Jennings was simply running late and needed to board a streetcar as soon as possible, but she ended up making an important if little-known contribution to civil rights.  Rosa Parks' act of defiance became much more widely known, and it would not be surprising if Rosa Parks did not know about Elizabeth Jennings, although it is irrelevant whether Rosa Parks knew about Elizabeth and was motivated by Elizabeth's actions.  What is important is that both women chose to take a stand against unjust policies and in so doing contributed to the eradication of those policies.  In a larger sense, by taking a stand against discrimination on a streetcar in New York City and on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, these two women helped to make indisputably clear that any policy of racial or ethnic discrimination is irreconcilable with our country's defining principle that "all men are created equal."  Elizabeth Jennings and Rosa Parks, two misbehaving women who were simply trying to use public transportation to go where they needed to go, rode their acts of defiance into history.  They were separated in time by a century, but they are forever linked in an inspiring historical rhyme that serves as a powerful civil rights paradigm and resonates through all ages.

 


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Rosa Parks
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Elizabeth Jennings
 
 
 

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