Sunday, May 17, 2015

Reflections on a year as President of the Baltimore City Historical Society

A Treasure Salvaged from Poplar Grove


As my term as president of the Baltimore City Historical Society comes to an end, I was asked by the editor of the newsletter to reflect on the year past and offer suggestions on the future course of the Society. Having spent over 40 years salvaging and making accessible the surviving historical records of Maryland, including this original map of the first Eastern Shore railroad, I decided to offer suggestions on how to fill in the holes of what we know or would like to know about the history of Baltimore and the rest of the State by making best use of the virtual world.

While I am still unclear as to how I was selected for the position of President, it has been a pleasure to preside over a board of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. Baltimore is fortunate to have such a locus of interest in its history. The passion for making the past come alive and to reach out with the City’s history is impressive. The heightened public interest by the Society's efforts is well reflected in the attention paid to the Facebook page and the attendance at the numerous outreach programs.

As I pass the gavel (figuratively speaking--I am keeping my Agnew gavel from the wood of Government House) to Councilman Kraft, I have two suggestions with regard to strengthening the Society’s role as the promoter of the city’s history, suggestions that have evolved from my recommendations made at the beginning of my term. While I still think raising funding for intern staff for area repositories would be a sensible investment in preserving and making accessible the archives of Baltimore History, an even more productive use of money raised might be in the creation of a reference resource in cooperation with the Baltimore City Archives, the Baltimore County Historical Society, the Baltimore Bar library, the Maryland State Archives, and the Maryland Historical Society.

Both suggestions relate to my personal quest to learn more about Baltimore’s past. For example, when exploring the history of a house in Fell’s point for a talk I gave, I found that one of my subjects had a summer home and farm in what is today Waverly. By tracing the story of the farm in the private records of the Martenet company (on line for a fee through a marvelous atlas created by Joel Leininger), I was led to an obscure chancery case at the Maryland State Archives containing a plat that showed not only his investments, but also those of two other prominent ship captains/merchants in Fell’s Point. Their stories were not of immediate interest on my part, although inter-related, and I filed what I learned in my notes. How helpful might those notes might be to someone seeking information about my subject’s partners and associates, yet they are buried in my research binders. In the future, who would be able to find them, or even know that my notes exist. In all likelihood those binders will reach the dustbin on my passing, and the stories associated with my subject’s business partners will disappear with them. As the song popularized by the Kingston Trio in 1959 reminds us, their “fate is still unlearned.” How then might we learn and build on what I and many others more skilled than I have done, emerging richer for the experience?

There is a crying need for an an authoritative dynamically growing encyclopedia and virtual repository of Baltimore City History, similar to what the Maryland Humanities Council attempted for Maryland History, but more on the collaborative model of Wikipedia. Creating a mediawiki for Baltimore History is neither expensive nor difficult (the software is free and creating the necessary server environment does not have to be costly top of the line). It could be in the ‘cloud’ (that mysterious nirvana of all electronic information) shared out and participated in by all institutions concerned with Baltimore history, through used equipment based at, say, the renovated Peale, with a permanent address (static IP) provided gratis by Verizon as a public service. While this all may sound mysterious because IT and Web service professionals like to make it sound that way to protect their business interests, it need not be. The great advantage of the open source movement and non profit models like wikipedia is that there are a lot of young minds who are willing to help out at minimal cost to keep access to the virtual world of information as free and open as possible. Indeed the future of democracy rests on how widely and inexpensively verifiable knowledge can be accessed. The future of Baltimore history rests on how easily verified and verifiable information can be located and added to, whether it be the history of the Star Spangled Banner, a biography of James Biays, the owner of the now forgotten estate of Mt. Jefferson in Waverly, the oral histories of the women’s movement of Charles Village, the life of the Baltimore newspaper editor, actor, turned Baptist preacher, or the real story of a house on Ann Street in Fell’s Point. Give it a home that is linked to the cloud, a modest equipment and maintenance budget, and a staff of professionals and volunteers, and the virtual world of Baltimore History will not only be permanently maintained and secure, but kept vibrantly accessible.

There is also a market for an inexpensive virtual research and writing environment for Baltimore History, designed to entice anyone seriously working on some aspect of the City’s past. Family history, neighborhood history, topical blogs, biography, all could be researched and drafted within an on-line research and writing environment similar to that offered by Google. In fact it could be Google, as long as it was backed up and stored locally on servers linked to the Baltimore City History wiki. For example, all of the good research and drafting of what is now currently being presented on any number of excellent Baltimore history related blogs could have its origins and its backup in a research, note taking, and drafting account on servers dedicated to a sustainable virtual archive of Baltimore related history. It would be a virtual sandbox, so to speak, where writers and teachers of topics related to Baltimore History could safely store and work with their notes and writings, secure in the knowledge that at some point their research notes could be accessed and built upon by others. If Google based, there would be no charge for service of backing up, save for a membership in the Society, with the benefit being a part of a permanent virtual archive.

How much would it cost to launch such an ambitious undertaking in the cause of Baltimore History? I estimate that, given a safe and secure space to house the virtual environment, that an initial investment of $20, 000 and annual maintenance support of $30,000 a year would be sufficient to get both up and running. Local corporations should be willing to underwrite, especially if the wiki included brief corporate histories and suggestions for further study (just recently we were asked to supply a speaker for T Rowe Price for which they offered an honorarium). To make it work would also require a team of oversight editor/managers, one paid, the rest volunteers. At minimum with benefits that might cost the equivalent of Research Foundation of State University New York Editor III - Global Studies Media Content Specialist Salary, or $52,611 a year, , and that too could be funded by annual corporate giving targeted for that purpose. In all $102,611 to launch the first year (assuming space is provided), and $85,000 a year thereafter.

For the prototype of what is suggested here as a wiki
for Baltimore City History see: http://virtualarchive.us


At this point I can see the shaking heads and they are not all in agreement. Are these two related objectives, something the Baltimore City Historical Society should be doing? If not, who?

If nothing is done along the lines I have suggested, it is my opinion, perhaps, only mine, that so much of the good work that has been done, and is now underway on the history of our city will be lost to obscurity within a few years. The irony is that today we have available to us search engines that provide remarkable access to information on-line in helpful ways that we could not have imagined two decades ago when Yahoo, Bing, and especially Google,  began taking over the world of what we know and how we know it. But if we don’t find a way to push what we do know and discover about Baltimore’s history into what Google, etc. mines and keep it there perpetually, we actually will know less about our city and ourselves in the decades to come than we do now. The books will have been sold to collectors, paper notes and valuable ephemera will have been tossed by our executors, and the virtual manifestations of our work on our hard drives, in our blogs, textings, telephone, and email communications will have evaporated into the ether leaving no trail and our history 'still unlearned.'

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Is Baltimore Burning?


 
Several years ago a good friend and  I put together a document packet for use in the schools on the 1967 riots in Cambridge, Maryland, and the 1968 riots in Baltimore, which we later updated to include the work of a University of Baltimore conference on the topic.  We called it "Is Baltimore Burning?" as an allusion to the cable Hitler sent to his commanding general in Paris as the Allies approached the city.

Perhaps the most telling document we provided was an unauthorized recording of a meeting Governor Agnew held with the black leadership of Baltimore which I found buried in the video archives of the University of Baltimore.   In it, Keiffer Mitchell's grandmother was not allowed to speak or ask questions of the Governor who proceeded to berate those present as not only not doing enough to quell the disturbances, but also pointed the finger of blame at them.

video


A lot has changed for the better since that sad day in 1968 when a white governor displayed his racism and ignorance with such reckless abandon and to such ill effect.  Juanita Jackson Mitchell's grandson, Keiffer is on Governor Hogan's staff, giving advice and helping the Hogan administration to realize that the problem of the recent riots are deep seated, extending back to the days of slavery when the predominant political and social structure perceived of blacks as inferior creatures, only capable of serving their white masters in perpetuity.

It serves no useful purpose  to re-state the obvious here.  President Obama has been most eloquent on the problems facing American society today and the only solutions: affordable education, employment that proves meaningful and remunerative, and strengthening community values that help our children realize that the principal aim in life should be a concern for the health and welfare of others, not self-gratification and a license to attack the defenseless, or stealing several pairs of Nike's.  The real Purge that needs to take place in our world today should not be a license for crime at any time, one day or many days.  It should be a cleansing of our souls, perhaps not quite the way recommended by Eldridge Cleaver, but instead rooted more in understanding the past and making the present better through informed discussion, negotiation, peaceful demonstrations, and legally binding action.

Civil rights activist H. Rap Brown, center, is seen in this April 1968 file photo with his lawyer, William M. Kunstler, left. He is surrounded by police after his arraignment on charges of inciting a riot. (Capital, Annapolis, MD, July 24, 1992, p. A5.)


We should confront the rhetoric of today's H Rap Browns with historical reflection and reasonable collective action.  We should stamp out the pernicious influence of the Bloods and the Crips, regardless of their pleas for calm, by collectively providing a viable alternative, beginning with a city wide movement in the schools, private, public, and religious, to confront the past through the surviving archives, understand it, and move beyond it without the violence and destructive presence of armed gangs.

Parts of Baltimore are burning, but in addition to putting out the fires and restoring order, it is essential that we constructively confront and overcome our past with our eye on the future.  Fortunately the Governor is listening, unlike Governor Agnew, and the Mayor took time during her efforts to manage the crisis to use it as a teaching moment at a school to those who need it the most, our children.  Would that the rest of the Schools, including the exclusive private schools of Baltimore, had done the same instead of closing yesterday in fear.

Let's bring 'civics'  and history back to the schools with an emphasis on both the past and solutions for the future.  Let's give the archives that we have a chance to assist in the teaching of what has happened and why, while providing insight and paths to do better through participation in the political process and community building. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Happy Birthday Mr. Jefferson! Reflections on Remembering Time and Place-- Thomas Jefferson in Annapolis, Maryland, November 25, 1783-May 11, 1784


April 13

a little snow lying in some places. Martins appear. Mockingbird sings”

Reflections on Remembering Time and Place--
Thomas Jefferson in Annapolis, Maryland, 
November 25, 1783-May 11, 1784

Thomas Jefferson / Charles Willson Peale, 1791/ Oil on canvas / Independence National Historical Park Collection, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


After Thomas Jefferson returned from his diplomatic mission to France in 1790 to become Secretary of State in Washington’s administration, Charles Willson Peale painted this portrait (1791-1792) displaying it in his Philadelphia Museum.   By then much had changed, both in the government of the United States, and in the town of Annapolis that Jefferson had left on May 11, 1784 for his post in Paris.

One outstanding feature of the Annapolis landscape that was not there in 1783-84, when Jefferson lived in Annapolis,  and attended Congress as a delegate from Virginia, was the magnificent wooden dome of the Maryland State House, said to be the largest of its kind in English speaking America.   

After Congress moved the seat of the national government to Trenton, N.J. in November of 1784, having fled to Annapolis in the fall of 1783 from the angry uncompensated veterans in Philadelphia, the Maryland government decided to remove the old, leaky roof and dome of the Annapolis State House and replace it with something more grand and permanent as proposed and executed by a self-taught architect, Joseph Clark.     

Charles Willson Peale, who got his start as an artist in Annapolis,  sketched the results of the State House renovations in 1788.



From the  vantage point of the walkway high up on the dome, in September 1790,  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would reflect with a friend on the stories that could be told of the town Jefferson had known so well  in those nearly seven busy months in Annapolis.  He lived first at Mrs. Ghiselin’s boarding house on West Street, and then in a house just off Church Circle,  rented from the eminent non-juror and loyalist sympathizing lawyer Daniel Dulany.  The foundation of the house is now under the Anne Arundel County Courthouse Annex.

On the trek up the narrow wooden stairway to the walkway around the dome, Jefferson was accompanied by James Madison, Thomas Lee Shippen,  and Shippen’s friend, Dr. Schaaf, who for three hours regaled them by “opening the roofs of the houses, telling us the history of each family who lived in them.” The next day they had a sumptuous dinner of turtle and expensive old Madeira at George Mann’s Inn off Church (now Main Street) and Conduit.

Given the extent and quantity of his writing during his stay in Annapolis, it is difficult to imagine that Jefferson slept much.  He found time to complete his Notes on Virginia which, because of the high cost of printing in America,  he took with him to be published in Paris.  He also composed position papers and recommendations on the currency, on the disposition of the lands in the Northwest Territory that had been won from Britain, on the finances of the struggling Confederation government, on  the protocol for accepting George Washington’s resignation as Commander in Chief (which took place on December 23, 1783), and a remarkable series of notes and annotations on number of subjects given to a Dutch friend, G. K. von Hogendorp,  who later published his memories of Jefferson’s habits in Annapolis:

Mr. Jefferson, during my attendance at the session of Congress, was more busily engaged than anyone.  Retired from fashionable society, he concerned himself only with affairs of public interest, his sole diversion being that offered by belles lettres.  The poor state of his health, he told me occasionally, was the cause of this retirement; but it seemed rather that his mind, accustomed to the unalloyed pleasure of the society of a lovable wife, was impervious since her loss to the feeble attractions of a common society, and that his soul, fed on noble thoughts, was revolted by idle chatter. [Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson,  7:82]

He even took time almost immediately on his arrival in Annapolis,  to instruct his eleven year old daughter, Patsy, on how she should occupy her time in Philadelphia.  On November 28, 1783, he wrote:

...the following is what I should approve.

from 8. to 10 o’clock practise music
from 10. to 1. dance one day and draw another
from 1. to 2. draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day.
from 3. to 4. read French.
from 4. to 5. exercise yourself in music
from 5. till bedtime read English, write &c.
...
I expect you will write to me by every post.  Inform me what books you read, what tunes you learn, and inclose me your best copy of every lesson in drawing. [Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 7:360]

Jefferson also began  to record the weather each day, beginning, perhaps as a new year's resolution, in January of 1784, a habit he continued with one interruption,  through January of 1790, and his return from France to Monticello. [Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, 771 ff].
He also recorded his daily expenses which provide the basic outline for what he was doing and purchasing while in Annapolis, including send his Hemings servant to Baltimore to become a hairdresser.  It didn’t work out.  Hemings refused to go to France, and returned with the horses to Monticello while Jefferson went on to France.  Evidently from the Peale portrait, Jefferson ultimately chose to do little with his hair, unlike many of his contemporaries. [see:  Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, ff  540-548].

On his birthday on April 13, 1784,  Jefferson found the day fair and the temperature ranging from 45 to 58 degrees fahrenheit accompanied by the  note:  “a little snow lying in some places. Martins appear. Mockingbird sings.” [Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, 773-774]

Nearly fifty years ago, I brashly set out to map and interpret the town of Jefferson and of Congress’s time in Annapolis.  With the help of my mentor, Johns Hopkins history professor Jack Greene, who agreed to be nominal principal investigator because a lowly graduate student could never secure a research grant on such a scale,  I wrote a successful grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities. The research files and the product of that research project are to be found at the Maryland State Archives.  I have placed the maps and the lot histories on line.

My dream was to create a layer of space and time that would accurately explain who owned what and where people lived in Annapolis in 1783 and 1784.  To do so, the project I directed pioneered in creating accurate base maps (derived from the Sanborn insurance maps)  and plotted the history of every piece of property in town as we could document it for 1783-84, linking place to biographies of residents and visitors, particularly members of Congress and residents who appeared on the tax list of 1783.  It was all done on paper without the aid of computers and Google Maps, inspired by the work on one street, Cornhill,  undertaken by one of the most thoughtful, gifted,  and dedicated  Archivists I have had the privilege to know, Phebe Jacobsen and her husband Bryce Jacobsen, long time athletic director for St. Johns College.  It would translate well into an on-going, dynamic research web site, if only a sponsor and funding could be found.

While the project never became the model for the on-going history of Annapolis that I had hoped it would, especially with the  promise of the virtual world,  it did inspire one of my colleagues, Jane McWilliams,  to become the historian of the city.  Her book on Annapolis is both definitive and a good read.

From our study of Annapolis lot histories,  you can discover the places today that have survived,  and that Jefferson would recognize, as well as learn of the sites of places no longer visible, where Jefferson dwelled, patronized, and was entertained.

To guide and to document Jefferson’s activities in Annapolis, Jefferson has left a detailed accounting record,  as well as extensive correspondence which Julian Boyd has made so accessible and readable in book form, but not all of which is yet accessible on line.

If I were to lead a walking tour of Annapolis of places most familiar to Jefferson during his stay in 1783-84,  I would start at the State House, in the rotunda, at the exhibit case containing the single piece of paper on which George Washington hastily (for him) composed his remarks to Congress resigning his commission, remarks that were required by the protocol of the ceremony Jefferson and his committee set forth for noon on December 23, 1783.  




See: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Maryland+State+House/@38.978828,-76.490974

Elaine Bachmann, Director of Artistic Property, Exhibits and Public Outreach, discusses the George Washington resignation display on Thursday. The Maryland State Archives acquired the speech in 2007 and put it on display


When on public business, Jefferson spent a great deal of time in the Maryland State House, most likely in the committee room, just off the Old Senate Chamber which houses some of the new exhibits prepared by the Maryland State Archives for interpreting the State House.  Missing is the panel designed for the first exhibits in that room in 1984 which documented the residences of the members of Congress in 1783-84, but in its place, the text of that exhibit can be found at:  http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5200/sc5287/000009/000000/000007/unrestricted/committee.pdf.  If you care to know where the rest of Congress lived while in Annapolis, you should start there.

From the State House,  exit to the northward, down the steps toward Lawyer’s Mall and left around the circle towards towards the Shaw House (8 State Circle).  This was home and shop of the cabinet maker John Shaw where Jefferson would have stopped to order the cabinetry recorded in his accounts.  Shaw was in charge of the furnishings and maintenance of the State House at the time and had commissioned the very large U. S. Flag that flew over the State House while Congress was resident.




See: https://www.google.com/maps/place/8+State+Cir,+Annapolis,+MD+21401/@38.9784263,-76.4911445

The original of the watercolor depicting the flag over the State House when Jefferson resided in town, can be seen  at one of the stops along the walk, the Hammond Harwood House.   I discovered the watercolor by chance one day on a self-guided tour of the house.  At the time it was not interpreted nor widely known.  I was stunned to see that the flag we had reconstructed for the first version of the Shaw flag from the receipts for cloth used, was in error (since corrected) and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the detail of what it depicted of the town about the time of Jefferson’s return in 1790.



Jefferson so admired the architecture of the Hammond Harwood House on Maryland  Avenue, that he sketched it in some detail:


Proceed from the Shaw House around State Circle to Maryland Avenue and on to the Hammond Harwood House for one of the best house tours in the city. 



See: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Hammond-Harwood+House/@38.9801688,-76.4872671

Afterwards return to the corner of Maryland Avenue and Prince George Street, walking southward towards the Harbor.  On your left, just before East Street, stop at the Paca House to visit the house and the gardens.




See: https://www.google.com/maps/place/William+Paca+House+%26+Garden/@38.979625,-76.487891


http://www.planetware.com/photos-large/USMD/maryland-annapolis-william-paca-house-and-garden.jpg


There is no indication that Jefferson ever visited the Paca House or the much larger Brice House around the corner on East Street, but  it is doubtful that he would have missed a chance to visit the garden, and he may even have spent time in the two houses that enjoy the view of the garden.  The Brice House, facing on East Street, is the largest of the colonial mansion built in Annapolis, and, if open, is well worth the visit.   The interior woodwork that dates back to just before Jefferson’s time in Annapolis is especially charming, including the mantle carved by an indentured servant named Mickey Mantle.
http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41ZCqqTso6L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

After leaving the Paca Garden and the Paca and Brice townhouses, proceed next down Prince George Street, again  towards the harbor, stopping in front of 142 Prince George Street,   Dr. James Murray’s house.  Apart from his government colleagues and those who stayed with him at the Dulany House on the west side of town, Jefferson probably spent more time here with Dr. Murray than any other resident.  He may have even showered there from water collected from the roof  in a lead lined cistern and funneled through a ‘shower head.’   Dr. Murray was a great believer in the medical advantages of a cold shower.



See: https://www.google.com/maps/place/142+Prince+George+St,+Annapolis,+MD+21401/@38.9785575


History of the Annapolis Inn Murray House

Farther on, when you get to  Randall Street, turn right, and proceed to Middleton’s Tavern on the right facing Market Space.  In 1783/84 it would have been occupied by Gilbert Middleton, and after Jefferson left, by John Randall, a  Revolutionary War veteran and supplier of uniforms,  who, as customs officer appointed by Washington  in the 1790s  used the building as  the first Annapolis customs house under the new Federal Constitution.




See: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Middleton+Tavern/@38.978177,-76.486914




There would have been a market there in Jefferson’s time, but closer to the traffic circle.  To his right,  on Market Space, Jefferson would have seen the impressive Wallace Davidson and Johnson building, only one portion of which still stands today on the corner of Fleet and Market Space (.  On his first days in Annapolis, Jefferson would visit John Davidson’s store in this building and purchase several items, repeating himself on more than one occasion throughout his stay.




See: https://www.google.com/maps/place/26+Market+Space,+Annapolis,+MD+21401/@38.9780022,-76.4876057


The surviving quarter of the building on the corner of Fleet Street is just beyond the second large chimney


If you pause at the corner of Fleet and Market Space,  and look back up towards the State House, 10 Cornhill was occupied by the silversmith John Chalmers from whom Jefferson purchased a silver cover for an ivory book, martingal rings & buckle for his horse.

Next follow Market Space to Main Street, turning right and walking up Main, proceed to Conduit.  Turn left on to Conduit, passing a colonial style building on the left which is now a Masonic lodge (162 Conduit Street).




See: https://www.google.com/maps/place/162+Conduit+St,+Annapolis,+MD+21401/@38.977195,-76.4900537

Neither it nor the row houses beyond would have been there in Jefferson’s time.  Instead he would have seen the courtyard and Mann’s Tavern where he  first stayed in Annapolis, and dined with his friends after his trip up the State House dome.  Mann’s is also where George Washington slept during his brief stay in Annapolis in December 1783, and where he probably composed his remarks resigning his commission,  now on display in the State House.  

http://www.annapolislodge.com/images/stories/manns_tavern_19th_century.jpg


At the corner of Duke of Gloucester Street turn right and walk up the street towards Church Circle, turning left towards  the 1820s Anne Arundel County Courthouse, the site of the house that Jefferson rented,  and where he completed the draft of his Notes on Virginia.   





See: https://www.google.com/maps/place/8+Church+Cir,+Annapolis,+MD+21401/@38.977864,-76.493167


When he left Annapolis for Paris, Jefferson  sold his possessions and his library there to future president James Monroe for 21 pounds 12 shillings and 8 pence.

[Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 6:240]

Undoubtedly the house was also supplied with some furniture belonging to Daniel Dulany,  possibly including Dulany’s desk on which he wrote the best known attack on the Stamp Act of 1765, and the losing arguments in the debate with Charles Carroll of Carrollton over the fee making powers of the last colonial governor, Sir Robert Eden.

Continue around the outer rim of Church Circle  past the Courthouse and by Reynold’s Tavern to West street, turning left.  Pause at the site of Mrs. Ghesilin’s boarding house (30 West Street) where Jefferson first stayed on his arrival in Annapolis in November, 1783.

 


 
See: https://www.google.com/maps/place/30+West+St,+Annapolis,+MD+21401/@38.978379,-76.4944118
West Street was the approach by land to Annapolis in 1783.  George Washington entered the city that way, as did Thomas Jefferson, although he would depart the city by the Rockhall Ferry in 1784.  Turning back towards the Church on Church Circle, Jefferson would have seen a diminished pile of bricks for the new church (long since demolished and replaced by the current structure) from which an enterprising member of vestry (Thomas Hyde) ‘borrowed’ for his inn.  The inn can still be seen at the tip of Main and Duke of Gloucester streets.  Now known as the Maryland Inn, the first triangular shaped commercial  building of its kind in America, it was still under construction in 1784.

http://www.annapolis.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Things-to-do-in-Annapolis-February-4-10-Maryland-Inn-History1.jpg
 

You might want to stop here for refreshment, or proceed back down Main Street to Middleton’s Tavern on Market Space. 


It would have been here at Middleton’s Tavern  that Jefferson would have purchased his passage on the Middleton ferry to Rock Hall when he left Annapolis on his way to Paris on May 11, 1784. His last entry for the weather in Annapolis was for the 10th of May when it was a pleasant  65 degrees.  He would not resume his systematic recording of the weather until slightly over a year later in France, when on the afternoon of June 9, 1785, it was but a degree warmer.

If Jefferson celebrated his birthday while in Annapolis, no record of it survives.  Happy Birthday, Mr. President!  We should observe the day as a tribute to your public service and unceasing intellectual curiosity, even if you did not.

April 13, 2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Yesterday's email: John F. Kennedy, Max Freedman, and the history of Imperial China?


Yesterday's email

Are the private messages a public figure writes of importance to our understanding of the past?  Should all correspondence, particularly emails, of public figures be subject to public scrutiny and permanent retention regardless of what server or storage device they may be on?  These are serious questions that will not be answered easily and are so politically charged at the moment, that resolution is not imminent.  Fifty-five years ago we were not confronted with the problems posed by public policy via email, and fairly reasonable guidelines for managing the paper files of government officials were in place,  although presidential tape recordings in the White House would prove a thorny issue to resolve some years later, consuming one presidency in the process.  Today Presidents probably fire off notes as instant messages from their phones or tablets, but apparently President Kennedy used small hand-written ones.    

Not too long ago our son acquired a book containing a hand-written note that intrigued him and our grandson Everett.


It was from John  F. Kennedy to “President Freedman”  in which he sends the book, a biography of the Dowager Empress of China, along with the comment that the author “may have been a fraud, but he wrote a corking good story….good luck keeping the names straight…” and  points to the page to read first.   The handwriting  on the note resembles one of  President Kennedy’s secretaries, but the signature appears to be his (the Kennedy Library as a matter of policy declined to authenticate).






To whom was it addressed?  A reasonable guess is that it was a playful Hanukkah greeting  to Max Freedman (1915-1980), the Manitoban who was the Washington Correspondent of the Manchester Guardian and   Free Press, before and during the Kennedy Presidency, or to his brother Samuel, the Chancellor of the University of Manitoba.   Max Freedman was a friend with whom John Kennedy spent a number of evenings discussing their love of books on  a wide range of topics, but especially biography.  The Kennedy library has transcribed an oral history interview with Max Freedman which can be found on their web site, and, in response to an inquiry about the President’s relationship with Max Freedman,  alluded to the off-the-record dinners. According to Max Freedman:


Now, one of the things I used to do for him – I would break his tension – quite often I would get a telephone call from him, and he‟d ask me about a book. And as abruptly as he had phoned, he would sign off.  Sometimes he would talk to me for thirty seconds, sometimes for five or ten minutes. But I always knew that something had gone wrong, and he knew that if he got me on the phone that he could talk to me about books or the theater, and that would be it. It was helpful to him. I remember the last thing I ever did for him.  We were there one night, and we were talking about biographies, and he asked to give him some. So I sent him thirteen, and he returned twelve with comments on them


Is it genuine?  To whom is it written? Is it in a book from the personal library of JFK?  Ought it be preserved in a public archive somewhere?  Suggestions (and evidence) are welcome, especially to Everett who, along with his grandfather, believes it provides further insight into the intellectual interests of JFK, and, who also, of course,   is curious about its monetary worth.


At one of his  last news conferences on November 14, 1963, President Kennedy addressed relations with China:

QUESTION: Mr. President, what are the prerequisites or conditions for resumption of some sort of trade with Red China?
THE PRESIDENT: We are not planning on trade with Red China in view of the policy that Red China pursues. If the Red Chinese indicate a desire to live at peace with the United States, with other countries surrounding it, then quite obviously the United states would re-appraise its policies. We are not wedded to a policy of hostility to Red China. It seems to me Red China's policies are what create the tension between not only the United States and Red China but between Red China and India, between Red China and her immediate neighbors to the south, and even between Red China and other Communist countries.

The more things change, the more they remain the same, especially in the South China Sea. Perhaps if President Kennedy were in office today, he would call  on someone like Max Freedman and discuss the biography of the next to last of the Manchus to relieve the tension, even if he did not record the call for us to listen in.