stevens_smithIt is a cruel irony of history that the Republican Party that originally stood for “Free Soil, Free Labor and Free Men,” the Party that led the nation in Civil War, the Party that wrote freedom and equality into the Constitution has become a bigoted and right wing extremist southern regional Party dominated by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney.

In becoming a southern rump, that party has betrayed every founding principle of its first generation of statesmen.

Happily, at least for one of those first generation of Republican founders, Thaddeus Stevens is finally getting his due in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After a decade of conflict between the City of Lancaster and preservationists, the derelict homes of Stevens and his African American housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith are being restored and will be opened as the focus of a major museum and heritage center highlighting their work and contributions to American history.

In the process archeological work around the homes has now also uncovered the involvement of Stevens and Smith as conductors in the Underground Railroad leading to the expansion of the original project to include a below street level heritage center under the re-designed convention center. When complete, the Stevens and Smith site will be a major destination where generations of Americans can uncover with pride, some of their past.

While the City of Lancaster has seized the opportunity to develop a major tourist attraction out of what once was a bitter feud with preservationists, the rest of us will be able to reacquaint ourselves with the pivotal events of the mid-19th Century and a major leader in those events who has been left to fade to the recesses of American memory.

For all of our “original intent” friends on the right, including Justice Scalia and the radical right wing of today’s Republican Party, among others, the actual original intent of the framers of the 14th Amendment, equality for all, is soon to be displayed for anyone to see in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Thaddeus Stevens fought a lifetime against bigotry and slavery and for racial and social justice. He demanded equal access to public education for all. In the processed he fathered the reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and left us our greatest legacy of the promise of liberty, the equal protection of the laws for all Americans.

The Majority Leader and whip of the Republicans of the Civil War and Reconstruction era in the U.S. House of Representatives, Chairman of the House Ways & Means committee, and leader of the “Radical Republican” faction of the Congress, Stevens was the one of the authors and the chief floor leader who helped craft and win passage of the three Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution.

He shepherded through the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments during his lifetime, and he also led the fight for passage of the 15th Amendment until his death in 1868. The 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870. Taken together, his contribution to the American Constitution is surpassed only by that of James Madison and the founders.

Lydia Hamilton Smith was a woman who defied convention, she ran Stevens household in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and in Washington, D.C. She organized his household, his social and his political events. She grew adept as a businesswoman in her own right, acquired and managed property of her own. To the shock of many, she freely advised Congressman Stevens in his home and in his offices, and he freely and openly sought her advice and counsel.

Stevens believed passionately in the equality of all, African Americans, Asian Americans, women, working people, the disabled and the poor. He was a forthright egalitarian in an age when few shared his views. Despite his “radical” views on race and class, he became the most powerful member of Congress, and in the view of many historians, the most powerful and effective to have ever held a seat in the House. He remains one of histories greatest parliamentarians.

An effective leader with unshakable views, he was no ideological purist simply for the sake of purity. He freely compromised his legislation in order to get “half a loaf,” then worked to get the other half after his bills passed into law. More often than not, he ultimately won the whole loaf.

When Andrew Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment on the grounds that “blacks were too barbarous” to govern themselves or share equal rights, Stevens had him impeached on the trumped up grounds that Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act. While Johnson was acquitted, the 14th Amendment was ratified without any further interference from the President.

One notable failure, however, was Stevens proposal for the confiscation of the slaveholding plantations and redistribution of the property to the former slaves in forty acre plots. Property confiscation proved to be a bridge too far for his fellow Congressmen, and “forty acres and a mule” failed in committee.

Shortly before his death, Stevens bought a plot at one of the prominent cemeteries in Lancaster. Upon learning that the cemetery deed included a covenant restricting burial to whites, Stevens demanded a refund and instead purchased a plot in a small African American cemetery.

He was buried there on August 17, 1868. His tombstone reads, “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race by charter rules, I chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life: EQUALITY OF MAN BEFORE HIS CREATOR.”

As a final bequest he endowed the creation of a trade school in which orphans and other indigent persons were to be admitted without tuition or fees. His bequest stipulated that no student was to be segregated on the basis of race, religion or color in housing or in meal halls. Today that institution remains, true to his bequest, as the Thaddeus Stevens Technical College of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In one more recent tribute to its founder, the College unveiled a bronze statue to Stevens on the occasion of his 213th birthday on the grounds of the college. In Lancaster, at least, and hopefully beyond, Thaddeus Stevens has made a great political and historical comeback from obscurity.

In a recent speech at Dartmouth University, Steven’s alma mater, Randall L. Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard University noted, in speaking about Thaddeus Stevens, “Could history have gone another way; the people who we laud as heroes, were there other people in their environment who made other choices?”

Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith were two people who made other choices than many of their contemporaries. They were partners for equality, great Americans, and truly, in the words of Lincoln, the better angels of our nature. To me, these two individuals are genuine heros of their own age, in ours, and in any age.

For more news about this history center in Lancaster, see also the Stevens and Smith Historical Site

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This just in from the here we go again department. After the health care debate dies down, plan on taking up arms on behalf of high speed rail and funding for Amtrak. Sombody, cue “Amtrak Joe” Biden. It’s curtain time.

Just over the horizon, beyond the health care debate are all the future scraps that we have to look forward to. Today’s Washington Post features an op-ed piece by Robert J. Samuelson attacking President Obama’s commitment to high speed rail and taking aim at another perennial favorite punching bag of conservatives, Amtrak.

Yeah, right, here we go again, and so’s your mama…

The reality of the matter is that the gridlock in both the air and on the highways on the east coast have made high-speed rail more imperative than ever. Anyone from Washington DC ought to know this, but for Mr. Samuelson and others living inside the bubble, seats on Amtrak are hard to come by all over the place, not just in the Northeast Corridor. The same is true for the Midwest, where rail ridership has tripled in 6 years and in California where voters have mandated their cash-strapped leaders to build more rail and free their lives from gridlock.

If Amtrak were an airline, it would be the nations fourth largest and the carrier is still gaining ground. Even long distance services are on the rise for the first time in decades. Amtrak is so pressed that it hasn’t got the equipment to keep up with demand, a result of successive Republican administrations to slowly strangle it to death.

Whether rail works or not ought ot be obvious. The experience of Illinois is a good case in point. When that State decided to subsidize additional trains, largely through the efforts of Senator Dick Durbin and far sighted Democratic allies back home, with more service between Chicago and St. Louis, Chicago and Quincy and Chicago and Carbondale, ridership went through the roof, no matter that the equipment Amtrak had to offer was not exactly their best. Illinois riders wanted more!

OK, conservatives say in response, but those liesurely long distance trains, who the hell needs those anymore?

Anyone whose taken Amtrak’s Empire Builder (and I have) across the northern tier can tell you about the crowds that wait to board the once a day train at places like Minot, North Dakota and Wolf Point, Montana. Amtrak keeps these remote states economically viable. Trent Lott was one of Amtrak’s biggest supporters, not because he was fond of trains, but because the price of an airline ticket between Jackson, Mississippi and Atlanta, Georgia is about the same as heart surgery.

Oh, what about that Sunset Limited, that useless train that runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles. Conservatives arguments against rail always winds up riding on the Sunset Limited.

It’s true that the train isn’t exactly a stellar performer in the ridership department, but it also only runs three days a week. If Illinois’ experience is any indicator if you stepped that up to daily and re-routed it so it reached Phoenix, the Sunset Limited might perform, too.

Americans are also used to thinking that Amtrak trains are not much of a bargain in the service department. Have you ridden in an airline seat lately. Amtrak’s customer service runs circles around their air competitors. Here’s another dirty little secret. Amtrak’s treains are often nicer than their European counterparts, at least the long distance trains are.

I recently rode the Southwest Chief in a sleeper between Chicago and Los Angeles. The ticket was $400 something and included meals in the dining car, a shower in the sleeping car besides my little private room with a view and a bed. A German couple travelling in the same sleeping car were thrilled to death. “I wish we had nice trains like this in Germany,” one of them said, “it’s just like those Hollywood movies.”

Our trains aren’t fast, but they’re fun.

With high speed rail money available from the stimulus, everybody wants a piece of it. I might agree that Governor Bill Richardson’s last minute application for consideration for an El Paso to Albuquerque high speed rail line over the sparsly popoulated desert is not a top priority. If conservatives wanted to be responsible critics they could lodge an objection rightly there, but a train across Ohio between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati probably would be in order.

Wisconsin, like Illinois, has even put some skin in the game contracting with Spain’s Talgo Company to build high speed rail cars in the Dairy State for use on the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor and a future high speed line to Minneapolis. Wisconsin will get two birds with it’s stone, transportation infrastructure and good paying jobs for its workers.  

China is spending billions on rail to prepare for the coming century. If the United States intends to maintain its (big economic term coming up here) comparative advantage economically we need to rebuilt our rail infrastructure or learn to start speaking Cantonese.

Wouldn’t that just thrill Tom Tancredo!

Conservatives rage against health reform and warn senior citizens of “death panels,” rationed care for the elderly and the impending government take-over of Medicare.

In this particular inverted vision, conservatives are somehow the champions of the well being of old and young alike. The trouble is nothing could be further from the truth. Conservatives have fought against every program ever enacted to protect well being and health of the elderly and children against the raw cruelty of the unbridled market. Social Security and medicare, just to name two examples, were passed over the shrieks of conservatives.

Conservatives still fight to abolish both programs. Has anyone ever heard of Newt Gingrich or Dick Armey? Ronald Reagan warned us not to pass Medicare, it would lead us down the primrose path to “socialism” he said. If medicare was passed into law, Reagan warned us in 1961, America’s senior citizens would lose their choice of doctor and face government rationing. Sound familiar? Learn to play another note on the piano, already!

Reaching back further progressives enacted legislation abolishing child labor and passed laws mandating universal education and worked to fund public libraries. Conservatives fought against schools and libraries, warning us of the dangerous ideas they might spread. Abolishing child labor was an intrusion on the family, they said. State Universities? Conservatives opposed them. Municipal water standards, publicly operated fire departments and pure food and drug regulation. They opposed that too.

Conservatives warn us of the impending doom of a “Canadian-style” or “British-style” “socialized” medical system where the government rations care to the old, and lets them wither and die, to save a little spending cash for the governments of those Stalinist Monarchies to spend on beaver abatement and saving the wild haggis from the ravages of global warming.

I have a history background, but anyone who purports to know a little something about mathematics would tell you to check your numbers. According to the CIA World Fact Book, life expectancy in Canada ranks 6th from the top and the United Kingdom comes in at 25th. The United States? We weigh in at number 50, way behind every other industrial nation and some not so industrial. It’s just a hunch here, but considering the similarities in diet and lifestyle between us and Canadians, the difference in rank of #6 versus our #50 might have something to do with universal access to health care.

“Are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?” Conservatives have been raving for a century and a half, “Do you need health care? Just go to the emergency room!”

Progressives applaud and encourage the free market, but when corporate bean counters overstep and begin rationing care to those too old, to young, too sick, or too weak to meet their preferred “market demographic,” we will support the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of all Americans and demand reform!

(that would be me)

I just attended Harry Teague’s Town Hall meeting in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional district. At this particular town hall meeting I came face to face with the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation. I need to tell you, they’re really pretty pathetic as “grassroots” organizers. There really is no there, there. They are weak and incompetent. They got nowhere at this town hall of 250, which broke down better than 2-1 in favor of reform.

While this particular town hall was tame and civil, something Las Crucens can be proud of, others have not been so civilized as ours here in the (not very) wild, wild west. In surveying this nonsense of the atro-turf mobs at the town halls it occurs to me that everything we need to know we can find in the Wizard of Oz… I know it’s a stretch, but bear with me here….

The Wizard of Oz is an allegory, and the author, Frank Baum was a “stalwart Republican.” [Frank Baum, by the way, called for the extermination of all Native Americans, he was such a nice fellow].

In the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West was the railroads, the Wicked Witch of the East was the banks, the straw man, farmers, tin man, labor, and the cowardly lion, William Jennings Bryan. The important 2 characters for my point here are the Wizard (a certain President named William McKinley) and the man behind the curtain, Mark Hanna.

Remember Mark Hanna? Of course you don’t. He was the Karl Rove of his time. In fact Mark Hanna is Karl Rove’s hero (no, really, he is, you can look it up). The message of the Wizard of Oz was for the agrarian folks of Kansas and other Granger state farmers to stop with their rebellious egalitarian populist foolishness and come home to the “loving” arms of the stalwart conservative wing of the Republicans.

(On message PR delivered trough all sorts of media is not a new concept. Neither is BS).

Mark Hanna was the back room goon who ruled the conservatives with an iron fist. Karl Rove thinks we are so stupid that he tells us where he gets his playbook from, knowing we’ll never be so bright as to look up the master plan. Rove is toying with us.

Hanna had it all, the press, the banks, the trusts, the party machine, the whole establishment shebang. He did everything the right-wing is doing now, today, right down to the astro-turf mobs.

Only the progressives didn’t break and they didn’t crack, they held the line and fought back. (Fightin’ Bob LaFollette made the astroturf “teabaggers” of his time who tried to crash and disrupt his Convention in Wisconsin enter the hall by way of a livestock ramp, single file… like pigs!)

The progressives organized down to the precinct level in state after state, and when it was all said in done, we got an end to child labor, an income tax, primary elections, the breakup of the trusts, Standard Oil broken up into 27 competing companies, a pure food and drug act, and a National Park Service, just to name few of the reforms.

You probably don’t remember Mark Hanna, but I bet you remember the leader who led the fight to finally crush him.

Theodore Roosevelt.

OK, so Barack Obama ain’t no Theodore Roosevelt, but who cares, we got the playbook too, and we know how to destroy the man behind the curtain!

Not only Karl Rove, but all the other men behind the curtain.

As for the health insurance industry and their lobbyists, Teddy Roosevelt once said, “The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being.”

Amen to that!

New Mexicans often seem to have such interesting names. Names like Megan Rodriguez and Fiona Martinez. Fiona Martinez? Would that make them Scots-Aztec?

Just a random thought….

Las Cruces, New Mexico from the west

Las Cruces, New Mexico from the west

I have to admit, I never thought I’d wind up here, in Southern New Mexico. When my parents retired here in 1984 I thought they had moved to hell. The weather was nice enough, of course, but the place was so, oh, I don’t know, beige. Nothing like the green hills of rural Wisconsin in summer that I loved so.

My parents fought about moving here. My Dad always dreamed of going west when he retired. My Mother wanted to stay home. Finally, she relented. “I’ll go out west with you, she told him, but I get to pick the place.”

After exploring a few possible places to relocate, they rolled into Las Cruces on I-10 from Tuscson. From the rest area overlooking Las Cruces and the Organ Mountains, the one with big road runner statue made out of old shoes, my mother declared, “This is it! This is the place!”

My own life remained in the Midwest. I worked in Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, and back to Chicago. For three decades I remained in the “windy city.” In the 1980’s I renewed the political activism of my youth, worked for Mayor Harold Washington, became State Chair of the Independent Voters of Illinois.

Later on, after a hiatus from political life, I backed the Dean Presidential campaign in 2004 and went to Indiana to knock on doors for Barack Obama in 2008. This (actively backing Obama, that is) was a surpise to everyone, as my former State Senator and neighbor in Illinois was a frequent target of my scorn, at the time, for his marshmallow-like centrism. Shows how much I know, he’s now President, and I’m still nobody. Well, at least we’re both rabid Chicago White Sox fans.

I also went back to school and finished the degree I never finished in my 20’s. I became a non-traditional (as they call old students), and award winning history student at DePaul University and then went on to Graduate School at the University of Illinois. I guess I felt like I had something to prove, or just learned to love learning in a formal setting. I’m glad I did it. Lifelong learning is the key to the future for all of us in a global world.

When my Dad died and left me his house in New Mexico, I toyed with the idea of retiring there myself. I began re-making the house into my own in preparation for it, tossing out the things I didn’t like, rearranging the pieces I did and making the place over in my own tastes.

Somehow I never really believed I’d wind up here, like forever and always, in New Mexico. Not really. I figured I’d just go on working in Chicago and die with my boots on, or head for the cornfield and end my days in Champaign, Illinois, near the University of Illinois. All my friends, the few close and cherished ones I have, are in the Midwest.

For all it has to offer New Mexico seemed so far away, so different from home, and I really didn’t know anyone except my Dad’s second girlfriend, the one he dated after my Mother died, and a neighbor. Nice enough people, but hardly the sort of people I like to spend the hours with. Besides, New Mexico is still beige.

But in the end, it was New Mexico that got me.

****

I did say I’ve been a political activist, off and on in my life. Sometimes I’ve been effective, usually, not so much. I’m not very politic for a fellow with an interest in politics. I admit that I’m remarkably impolitic for a man with such a fine sense of pragmatism, but I don’t really need to be, after all, I’m not running for anything.

When I was young, in high school actually, my ideology was cemented by the anti-war and civil rights movements, and by the 1968 campaign of Eugene McCarthy. History and tradition fired me with the progressivism of my own home state, of the democratic vision of Robert M. LaFollette, “Fighting Bob,” the iconic Governor, Senator and Statesman of the Dairy State.

After a term in Congress in which La Follette defied the Republican Party bosses that sent him there, “Fighting Bob” was booted from renomination by the boss-run conventions that decided such things at the time. He fought back two years later and led an insurgent movement that swept the State, enacted direct primaries, overpowered machine politics and turned Wisconsin, in his words, into a “labratory of democracy.” He called the movement he began progressivism and it spread across the nation, a reformist impulse reaching deep into American life, and culminating politically in the bull moose campaign of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. In 1924 La Follette led his last fight, an independent presidential run that took 17% of the popular vote.

I called myself a progressive long before liberals under fire from the Reagan right started taking up the term to link up with some old American memory of something positive, something that sounded like Teddy rather than Franklin Roosevelt.

But liberals, like conservatives, tend to be elitists, stuffing their ideologies down everyone’s throat, whether they like it or not. Most of their organizations don’t have voting members, just boards of directors. I certainly have a philosophy, and that philosophy is well to the left of most, though considerably more pragmatic than some of the more left leaning types I know. I’m a progressive in the old sense of the word. I like participatory democracy. In the end, I like the wisdom of the many, rather than the think tanks of a few.

I got my progressive world-view from Wisconsin, I learned human rights and respect for diversity from my life in black Detroit in the 1970’s, and I honed my pragmatism in Chicago. I’m about as far to the left as any other dreamer, but I know how to settle for half a loaf and start working on getting the other half another day. I’m no rigid ideologue.

When I was in my formative years, as a young activist, I was involved in every campaign under the sun. In 1974, when I was 20-something, I help organize forums in Northern Wisconsin with a classmate of mine, a woman named Kathy. That was a sweeping Democratic year, just after Watergate. Two of the state candidates we organized forums for were Douglas and Bronson C.LaFollette. Distantly related, they hated each other.

Doug LaFollette was running for Secretary of State, Bronson for Attorney General. Doug LaFollette was a newcomer to Wisconsin politics, a native of Iowa. He claimed to be a relative of old Fighting Bob. Bronson, the grandson, insisted he wasn’t; that he was pimping off his families revered Wisconsin name. It was incredibly petty. Typical prima dona politician stuff. Doug hired a geneologist and proved the family tie. He was a cousin, twice removed. He was gloating, and letting the world know he was gloating.

Bronson was a handsome charismatic fellow. He’d entered policitics at 25, right out of law school and swept into the Attorney General’s chair, as a Democrat, mainly on the strength of his grandfather’s, fathers and uncle’s names. Four year later he ran for Governor. Wisconsinites weren’t buying the concept of a 29 year old Governor, even if he was a LaFollette. He lost.

In the election year of 1974 he decided to get his old job back, Attorney General. On the night we held his forum I needled him about Doug LaFollette’s genealogy. He was visibly annoyed. I love annoying politicians. Kathy tried to change the subject. “What does the C. stand for?” she asked. He hesitated, he obviously didn’t like his middle name. “Cutting” he said, “Bronson Cutting was a progressive Senator from out west, my Dad’s best friend.” It stuck in my head. It was history. I inhale history.

****

Recently, I rode up I-25 to Soccoro, alongside the old Jornado del Muerto, the El Camino Real’s “journey of death.” It may be desolate, but it seemed incredibly beautiful to me, and interesting. New Mexico has grown on me, after all. I wonder why I resisted it so. Now I’ve fooled around and fell in love with the place. Even the places New Mexicans call uninteresting, seem awe-inpiring to me now. I learned to like the desert, I love chiles, and the people are a friendly lot.

For all of its remoteness, New Mexico seems to offer a whole new world of new beginnings for me. As a child I longed for those trips to the countryside, and as an adult, I’ve travelled across the landscape looking for solitude in remote places. I’ve lived in cities all my life, and while the dense exitement of urban life thrilled me when I was 25, I’ve grown more and more tired of it as time and life wore on. In New Mexico solitude is everywhere.

Between Las Cruces and Socorro the desert spreads out in all directions and the road runners and jackrabbits vastly outnumber the people between the two communities.

In Soccoro, a city in central NewMexico and one of those “real” New Mexican places, well off the tourist trail, I spotted an item about an old New Mexico Senator. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico. It was a Pershingesque sort of moment.

I thought for a moment and said out loud, “Senator Cutting, I’m an old Wisconsin progressive and I am here!”

For my mother, New Mexico was love at first site. It took me a while to grow into the idea, but I have, and now that I have, I just can’t quite understand why I resisted the idea. Frankly, it’s the best damned place on earth!

This is the place!