The Flour Rioters of 1837
Bread, meat, rent and fuel
Ask them about: sourdough starter?
In the pandemic months of 2020, one of the most initially surprising facts of life was the desolation of the supermarket baking aisle, with flour in desperately short supply as we all stress-baked our way through isolation. It isn’t the first time flour availability has been top-line American news, either. New Yorkers were obsessed with rising prices and short supply of flour in 1837, too – and that time, it led to a very contentious, very powdery riot.
Have a drink with: Black Historians
Ask them about: Maybe just listen.
Here’s something I found while I was researching this week. It’s a column from a September 1863 issue of Scientific American:
Part of the process of researching a subject is looking at all the adjacent issues that you encounter along the way, building a sense of daily consciousness and public culture in a given era. And I was still shocked – and absolutely should not have been – at the clinical distance with which the authors talk about black soldiers in the Civil War, and the suggestion that even the Union army thought of black men as such commodities that they’d rather send them in than risk white soldiers dying of malaria.
So it’s time to sit in that discomfort, and recommend that we all do more to understand America’s history of inequality. There are a lot of titles here, and this is just a small selection. I’m not going to link them – you can choose where you’d like to purchase (but bookshop.org and indiebound.org are cool because they help you support your favorite local bookstores).
Have a drink with: The American Voter
A high and important duty to perform.
Ask: what’s your plan for voting?
Poster, “Don’t Talk Politics in Here if You Are Not Registered.” 1986.0534.23.
We’re not alone among the world’s democracies in this fact, but Americans don’t have a great record on voter turnout, particularly when midterm elections are involved. This is not unique to the modern era, either: back in 1803, when Connecticut was considering the sort of structural political change that would lead to the passage of our 1818 Constitution, fusty Federalist judge David Daggett, writing under a pseudonym in a political pamphlet called “Facts Are Stubborn Things,” (no kidding, dude) encouraged his readers to avoid Election Day laziness:
“[G]ive your suffrages for those whom your consciences approve. Let no federalist say my town will do right without me, or my vote will not oppose the triumph of democracy. Each freeman should feel that he has a high and important duty to perform, and that in neglecting it, he is inexcusable.”
But more to the point: a reminder from the past, courtesy the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of October 10, 1905, that there are lots of ways to remind yourself to go vote tomorrow:
Have a drink with: John Tyler
Ask him about: Sick of that song yet?
In the anonymous New York Times opinion essay about staff dissent within the White House published earlier this month, the author mentioned (among many other things) deliberation over use of the 25th Amendment in response to perceived presidential instability.
To be fair, this is not a new topic: the the 25th Amendment has been a common topic in shouts and whispers over the past two years as pundits consider whether its terms would or wouldn’t realistically attach to the current occupant of the White House.
The 25th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1967 in direct response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the questions involved had well predated the 25th Amendment even if they had not been presented so directly: what to do when the Presidency changes fundamentally and irrevocably, due to death, removal, resignation, or disability?
Dealing with matters of succession and power transfer, the 25th was invoked in the 1970s around the Nixon administration, and is occasionally put into action when a sitting President is temporarily incapacitated (despite the promise of intrigue and drama inherent in the amendment, in reality it’s been used, for example, to cover the duration of each of the Bush presidents’ colonoscopies).
But for the first word on the matter of presidential succession, you’ll need to go back to 1840 and then-Vice President John Tyler, who set up a century-long American precedent on succession that boils down to a very Trumpy word: MINE.
Have a drink with: The Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands at New Haven
Say that one five times fast.
Ask them about: Food trucks, church buildings and underground parking structures
There are situations in which you are pleased to find your hometown has made national news. A horrific instance of mass overdose is emphatically not one of them. And as news coverage has attempted to understand and respond to a public health crisis of this particular impact, all but the most local coverage has overlooked one idiosyncratic fact about the administration of the space in question: the city of New Haven, Connecticut is not the owner of the New Haven Green.
Have a drink with: Presidential Hats
Come at me, bro.
Ask them about: how buff was Teddy Roosevelt?
With the collective American mind very much on upcoming midterm elections, and with a host of new and nontraditional contenders running for office, one phrase pops up perhaps a little more than usual: the announcement that one candidate or another has tossed his or her hat in the proverbial ring.
It’s a common, casual phrase in American English – but where does all this hat-throwing come from?
Perhaps the first public use of the phrase was on November 30, 1804, when the London Morning Post recapped a boxing match between fighters Tom Belcher and Bill Ryan. The sports reporter set the stage for the bout by writing:
“The parties arrived at Wilson Green, soon after ten o’clock, where a ring was formed by the spectators, who anxiously waited the event of the fight. Belcher appeared confident of success, and threw his hat into the ring, as an act of defiance to his antagonist, who entertained the same confidence of success, and received this bravado with a smile.”
(FYI: Belcher was favored in pre-fight betting with 6:4 odds, but went down in the 37th round on a knockout. )
Have a drink with: Daniel Sickles
Once I was the King of Spain…
Ask him about: What’s the name of his other leg?
Daniel Sickles sat weeping in a Washington, D.C. jail in 1859. The young, charismatic New York Congressman was an up-and-coming star in American politics – a favorite of President James Buchanan, in fact – and he was sitting in a dirty jail cell, heartbroken and awaiting trial for murdering his wife’s lover.
But before you feel too sorry for him, consider this: Daniel Sickles was a tool. How much of a tool?
He robbed the mail to take a political adversary’s advertisements out of circulation.
He was indicted for various financial schemes, including selling fake news subscriptions so he could drink the $1,000 profit at an upscale bar.
He took campaign contributions from his favorite prostitute, whom he also brought along as his companion and introduced to Queen Victoria while on assignment as James Buchanan’s secretary in London. While his pregnant wife was at home.
Whom he’d seduced, knocked up and married when she was sixteen.
After sleeping with her mother.
So his jailhouse blubbering is really a matter of the pot calling the kettle slutty, but you can thank Sickles for creating something we still use today: temporary insanity.
Have a drink with: George Logan
Officious intermeddler, or really nice Quaker?
Ask him about: Working vacation in Paris
As the public becomes suddenly, intensely interested in any shred of previously-confined-to-textbooks arcana that might be dragged out of the law closet to explain or mitigate the current Presidential administration, this is a bizarrely entertaining time for legal scholars. (Faithless electors! Emoluments! The 25th Amendment!)
The latest of these, invoked around the supposition of Trump associates conducting conversation with Russian government officials, is the 1799 Logan Act. To be fair, this is not a new issue: the Logan Act has been dragged out as a possible remedy by nearly any disgruntled partisan over the years to object to the conduct of some politician or activist they don’t like (don’t believe me? Just ask Jimmy Carter, Obama, Trump, Jesse Jackson, Jane Fonda and Ross Perot).
The Logan Act has a simple message. In short: “Hey, you! Yes, you. Are you part of the executive branch? No? Then don’t negotiate with foreign governments.”
Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
The Greatest Showman on Earth
Ask him about: elephant agriculture
Barnum month continues! With the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performing its last shows yesterday in New York, and first-look pictures of Hugh Jackman’s Barnum musical The Greatest Showman breaking this week, it’s a good day to tip the top hat to Phineas T.
Here are ten things you may not have known about Barnum:
1. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum never spoke his most famous words. In the late 1860’s, workers near Syracuse, New York dug up a ten-foot stone colossus, claiming it was archaeological evidence of Biblical giants having lived in the northeast United States. Really the “Cardiff Giant” was a hoax planted by skeptic George Hull, and as it drew thousands of people to see it, the statue made its owners money hand over fist. When the statue’s owners refused to sell to Barnum, the showman simply created his own “Giant,” and claimed the other guys were showing a fake. One version of the tale has angry owner David Hannum spitting out the famous phrase in the resulting legal dispute.
Have a drink with: Spike Jones
The best offense is a good fart joke.
Ask him about: firearms as percussion instruments
In 1942, New York radio DJ Martin Block sold war bonds on air – to an audience that was under wartime food and gasoline rationing – on the promise that he’d give a free record to any listener who bought a $50 bond. Every time the pledge total went up another $2,500 Block played the single in question on-air, to cheers and peals of laughter.
The song was “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” by Spike Jones and his City Slickers, and Block sold $60,000 of bonds inside a week.
Because you can argue, you can petition; you can organize demonstrations and engage in politics; but sometimes the most effective piece of international policy dialogue is a Bronx cheer.