Book review: Our Family Dreams: The Fletchers’ Adventures in Nineteenth Century America

Often the names of streets, parks, and neighborhoods point to the history of a city. Fletcher is one such name. In exploring the local history of Indianapolis, I routinely encountered the name Fletcher.

I learned about the Fletcher family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery and heard stories during tours. I drove down Fletcher Avenue and found myself wandering Fletcher Place when I trekked the cultural trail. I discovered a stunning portrait of Louisa Fletcher, a descendant (granddaughter?) of Calvin Fletcher, who moved to Indianapolis in the early 1800s, at the IMA. Booth Tarkington, a playwright buried in Crown Hill and with a theatre named after him, was married to Louisa. Calvin’s diary is an early historical source of sorts of Indianapolis. Wherever I turn I seem to encounter the Fletchers.

Somewhere, I do not remember where, I learned about Our Family Dreams, an account of the Fletcher clan. I was immediately intrigued.

The book is a delight and a disappointment. A disappointment because it focuses on only the 19th century. I was left wanting more and wondering about the clan in the 20th century. (Louisa doesn’t appear in its pages.) A delight because it is a deep dive into the two Fletcher brothers (Elijah and Calvin) and along the way provides insights in 18th and 19th century life, the political and cultural realities of the country, and early Indianapolis.

Smith starts his story with the patriarch of the family, Jesse Sr., who moved to Vermont to start a farm. His life was consumed with hard work, but he never really got out of the shadow of debt. Despite (or perhaps because of) his poverty, he recognized the value of education, even for girls. Several of his children were educated, either through his direct financial support or from the support of older siblings who were educated and out in the world seeking success.

The focus on Elijah and Calvin provides a fascinating insight into different cultural areas in the US before, during, and after the Civil War. The Fletchers in Vermont were an anti-slavery family. When Elijah left home to seek his way in the world, he was headed to Raleigh for a teaching assignment but stopped short in Virginia, where he took to the southern way of life.

Calvin, in contrast, headed west, eventually ending up in the new city of Indianapolis, which was located in a nominally anti-slavery state. (Indiana’s status can be debated; the legislature was dominated by pro-slavery Democrats and Hoosiers along the banks of the Ohio River often sympathized and sided with pro-slavery sentiment. However, Indiana sent one the largest numbers of soldiers to fight in the Union Army and was constitutionally anti-slavery. See blog posts that mention slavery in Indiana.)

The two brothers stayed in close contact over the decades, each residing over family dynasties of a sort. Elijah quickly became a plantation owner in his own right. Calvin was a lawyer, farmer, landowner, and pillar of the community. Whereas Elijah supported and condoned the owning of slaves, Calvin in his legal capacities helped some slaves brought to Indiana attain their freedom. (According to Indiana law, when slaves were brought to the state for residency—as opposed to transiting through the state to another destination—they automatically gained their freedom. At least in theory according to the law. Reality was a different matter.)

Snippets in the stories about Calvin resonate with history that I have encountered in my explorations of Indiana. In Ohio, Calvin lived with and studied law with a lawyer, reminiscent of the tales I heard about how men studied law in Madison on the Ohio River. As a young lawyer, he rode the circuit in Ohio and Indiana.

His household, once he was established as a pillar of society, consisted not just of family but of servants. And he took in widows and orphans for periods of time. Although I hadn’t encountered other historical figures in my travels who housed random widows and orphans in their own home, it was not uncommon for wealthy men to establish special houses for widows where their basic needs were met.

The story about how Calvin ended up marrying his first wife was enlightening. He realized he needed a helpmate through life but was torn about who it should be. He approached the task of getting a wife more as a rational choice rather than a matter of the heart. He was clearly concerned about status—a wife could improve one’s status or hurt it. He was originally drawn to a student of his but she was from a poor, ignorant family. She would not raise his status, but she could be a project, a person for him to educate and mold. His dilemma seems strange from a 21st century perspective. Frankly, with his attitudes, he seems like a condescending jerk.

As someone in the early years of Indiana, he was, to my chagrin, a land speculator, even owning land as far away as northwest Indiana (Michigan City). (My disappointment is that he was part of land speculation in Indiana that stole land from the native Americans and sold the land for a tidy profit.)

He was anti-slavery but racist. He supported the liberation of slaves and their rights but like Lincoln, believed that once freed, they should return to Africa. He kept out of debates in the 1844 presidential election but refused to support the anti-slavery Quaker ticket. He thought, perhaps rightly, that the Quaker ticket would only succeed in splitting the other tickets. (Neither other ticket was ideal: Whig Clay from pro-slavery Kentucky or Democratic pro-slavery Polk.) He also employed former slaves on his farm.

Indiana was settled with lots of Germans and was populated with numerous breweries. German societies such as the Athenaeum in Indianapolis that celebrated culture and education were common, but at least in Calvin’s day, the Germans he encountered seemed not to be of this class. He viewed Germans as ignorant and backwards and thus looked down on them.

Calvin was involved in the nascent banking industry as a banking president. The early banking industry, as I learned in my explorations, was anything but above board. Banks were meant for the wealthy elite, not the common folk. Often they went belly up and were dens of corruption. Calvin though is portrayed as an above-board kind of guy. I wonder more about his role in the early banking industry in Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of what he described as internal improvements (what we now refer to as infrastructure projects.) He actually visited the Erie Canal in New York and thought that canals would be better than railroads. (Railroads would only last a couple decades, he thought. He must have realized the error of his judgement; he was at one point on a railroad board.) As with banking, I wondered what his involved in the doomed canal projects in Indiana was. Indiana’s ill-fated attempt to build canals throughout the state ended in failure and the state’s bankruptcy.

Smith mentions in passing the Panic of 1837 and how it contributed to a depression that lasted until 1843. Again, the early financial history of Indiana—and Calvin’s role in it—would be fascinating to learn. My impression is that the state bankruptcy due to the flawed investment in canals led to the panic and ensuing depression, but I am not at all certain that the banking industry didn’t contribute to it as well.

Calvin watched politics and society become more and more divided in the 1840s. He was a staunch abolitionist but not everyone (or most people?) in Indiana shared his views. The protestant churches started to split into northern and southern branches around this time period.

He was friends with Henry Ward Beecher, a Presbyterian minister who preached against slavery. (The Presbyterian Church split into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery in 1861.) Henry is incidentally the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery treatise Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Calvin was not only an abolitionist, but he was active in temperance and education reform movements, the latter a topic dear to the Fletcher family in general. In the 1830s Horace Mann initiated educational reforms in Indiana. In 1852, Indiana finally established free education. (See blog posts about education in early Indiana.)

Through Calvin’s correspondences with his brother Elijah, we get a glimpse into the political and social realities of the decades leading up to the Civil War. Calvin feared that annexing Texas, which wanted to allow slavery, would lead to war in Mexico and upset the balance of slave vs. non-slave states. He ruminates on John Brown and his attack at Harper’s Ferry. His son Elijah, now a preacher in a church in New Albany in southern Indiana, recounts the pro-Confederate sympathies of his congregation. (Many Hoosier families along the Ohio River were split, with fathers supporting one side and sons the other. Despite this, pro-Confederate sentiments weren’t sufficient to support a Confederate raid into Indiana.)

The pro-Union governor Oliver Morton turned to wealthy businessmen and community leaders to help gather troops, supplies, and funds for the Civil War. One person that Morton turned to was Calvin, whom he enlisted to gather munitions.

Although in his 60s, Calvin traveled to Canada to gather munition for the cause. Given his advanced age (he died at 68), Calvin tried to avoid being further pressed into service. When Morton wanted him to travel with him to Terre Haute, he sent his son Miles in his place. On that trip, Miles was tragically killed by a passing train.

Calvin mentions the train that stopped in Indy on its way to taking the newly elected Abraham Lincoln to Washington DC. Given Lincoln’s status as saint in modern times and their (later?) shared abolitionist view, I expected Calvin to be pro-Lincoln. If anything, Calvin seemed lukewarm about Lincoln. He actually met Lincoln briefly at the White House, but the meeting did not leave him with a great impression either of Lincoln or his administration (!). (Interesting, brother Elijah met Jefferson at Monticello and was less than impressed by him.) When Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Indy on April 30, Calvin and his wife did pay their respects as Lincoln laid in the Indiana statehouse.

The stories of his children are equally fascinating as the history he lived through. Although he attempted to instill deep morals in his children and prized education, on the whole his children did not turn out as expected. Those from whom he expected great things seemed to disappoint but those who seemed disappointing turned out quite well.

On the whole, his sons wanted to distinguish themselves in battle during the Civil War rather than stay and help with the family business. Calvin rarely mentions his daughters. Maria married Cyrus Hines (who served in the Civil War and post-war practiced law with Benjamin Harrison). After Maria died in childbirth, her sister Lucy married Cyrus—a marriage that Calvin disapproved of.

His son Billy, originally a disappointment, distinguished himself after being captured during the Civil War. He used his medical training to help anyone he could during confinement. Following the war, he became a respected pillar of society, setting up different institutions in Indianapolis.

Calvin also found himself trying to right the ways of errant siblings and nephews, which he wasn’t always successful in doing. His brother’s daughter Indiana pleaded with him to obtain a pass to the north for her. (She was located on her late father’s plantations during the war.) Understandable given his role helping Morton and the side he took in the Civil War, he mainly stayed silent, never satisfying her request. He and his branch of the family had chosen the Union. Elijah and his branch had chosen slavery and the Confederacy.

In all the book is a fascinating look into different political, societal, and historical elements of the US—all through the prism of the Calvin and Elijah Fletcher families. Much that is mentioned weaves with histories and customs that I learned elsewhere. The book did raise other questions and left me wanting to learn more about the Fletcher family and their role in Indiana and American history.

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Book review: The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner

It is amazing how much of Pooh sticks with you over the years.

I had a longing to revisit Winnie-the-Pooh and managed to get my hands on the complete works of Pooh by A. A. Milne. I remember one particular Pooh book from my youth: the one where Pooh visits Rabbit and gets stuck in his doorway. This story is included in the complete works.

The Pooh stories were clearly inspired by a young boy and his teddy bear. Originally in the stories the bear was named Edward Bear but quickly referred to as Winne-the-Pooh. Milne created these stories to entertain a real Christopher Robin who dragged his stuffed bear around.

The stories in Winne-the-Pooh contain the original cast of characters: Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and baby Roo. The House At Pooh Corner introduces Tigger to the Hundred Acre Wood. Christopher Robin is always popping in and out of the stories. He lives in a tree in the forest but is often out doing things and only occasionally joins the other inhabitants in the forest.

The stories were a delight to reread. I remember most, if not all, of the various chapter-length tales—the game of Poohsticks, Roo’s Strengthening Medicine, Eeyore losing his tail. This odd collection of friends is timeless. They do not age and frankly neither do you. Like Christopher Robin in the stories, you can pop in to visit them at any time and it feels like no time has passed since you last interacted with them.

Pooh and his friends seem like archetypes—I always thought that they each represent different aspects of ourselves. Rabbit the know-it-all. Owl the wise and knowledgeable. Kanga the kind mother. Roo the overexcited youngster. Eeyore the perpetually depressed. Piglet the anxious and fearful. (Well, he is a Very Small Animal after all.) Tigger the exuberant lover of life. Pooh the calm, humble bear who accepts all. (My favorite was always Tigger who is quite bouncy.)

I was surprised that in addition to the stories, I remembered the dialogue. Milne had a way with witty banter. I often found myself laughing out loud at exchanges between characters. In one story, Rabbit clearly wanted to be left alone, but he encountered Pooh who wanted to talk. (Who hasn’t been in this situation before?) “Hallo, Rabbit,” [Pooh] said, “is that you?” “Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.” (page 106)

Other times, Pooh, a Bear of Very Little Brain, says something quite profound. Piglet, who is always nervous and worried, asks Pooh a question as they are walking in the forest. “Supposing a tree feel down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” “Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought. Piglet was comforted by this. (page 272)

Other times he clearly is not too bright. As Piglet observed, “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm. He does silly things and they turn out right.” (page 122). He cannot remember left from right. He knocks on the door to his own house, mentions that it is taking the occupant forever to answer, and then is reminded that it is his own house. He falls into his own trap for the mythical Heffalump. But he is a true and tried friend to all with a heart of gold.

The last story in the collection is sad—a collective good-bye to Christopher Robin who is clearly going off to school and putting his group of stuffed animals aside to Grow Up. But the nice thing is that the group did not grow old. The inhabitants of Hundred Acre Wood are still there, visiting each other to wish a Happy Thursday or doing simply Nothing. You can join them any time you need a break from Being an Adult.

Book review: Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World

Dear Madam President is both a reflection on Palmieri’s role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign and a call to arms for women in leadership. The book is specifically for the woman who will be the first woman president, but her words really speak to women in any leadership role. Heck, they speak to any woman.

The book is an easy read, divided into nine chapter or exhortations. Through them Palmieri describes situations that happened during the Clinton campaign or during a visit with Elizabeth Edwards and then illuminates the lessons to be learned from them. She talks directly to the future woman president of the United States—Madam President. (She originally notes that Madam seems to define a woman by her attachment to a man but ends up using the title because frankly there is no neutral title for a woman that doesn’t denote her relationship with a man. Sigh.)

She acknowledges the failures that Hillary’s advisors (which includes herself) made in the campaign and their wrong assumptions. They advised her to run like a man, to run as a presidential candidate, not the potential first woman president. This was a mistake. Hillary should have embraced being the first woman president and forged her own model of leadership.

Palmieri recognizes that currently the only model for a person in power to follow is male. And that this needs to change.

As she explained this point and raised the fact that women have imitated male models in the workforce, I thought back to the 1980s, when middle class white women entered the workforce in large numbers. The clothing (remember the huge shoulder pads and mannish look to business attire?), the attitude, the mannerism all screamed women trying to be men.

Women had to prove that they belonged by proving that they were tough enough. They were just like the men, whose ranks they were fighting to enter. They had to embrace the male work style.

In hindsight this was a huge disservice to women, men, and the work world. We are still paying the price and trying to escape this male model.

Palmieri calls for a new way, a new model of leadership. What would it be like to lead like a woman?

She also recognizes in hindsight the refusal or inability of Hillary’s advisors to acknowledge the deep misogyny in the US. People disliked Hillary. They were OK with voting for a woman, they insisted, but not that woman. They didn’t trust her.

But suddenly they were OK with Hillary when she conceded the race. Palmieri surmised (rightly, I think) that people were not comfortable with Hillary—with a woman—being in a position of power. But as soon as she conceded, suddenly she stepped back into a traditional role played by women. Then she was OK.

The problem was clearly that the anti-Hillary folks didn’t trust Hillary because she was an “intelligent, capable, ambitious woman in a position of power.” (page 50) As such, she “represented an existential threat to the proper order of things.” (pages 54-55)

Palmieri mentions that Hillary’s advisors also didn’t understand the level of frustration in the population at large and how it was playing out in the populous movements in the campaigns. But the Clintons did. Palmieri mentions a book that the Clintons read and discussed, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements—a book from the 1950s. It sounds eerily relevant to today (and a must read).

Palmieri’s lessons and advice to the future Madam President (and women in general) are good. Some lines jumped off of the page and felt like Palmieri was speaking directly to me. She described my own experiences, insecurities, and problems being a woman in a world that doesn’t value women.

Which things that she writes might speak directly to you?

Book review: The Storm Before The Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

As a total newbie about Rome, I thoroughly enjoyed The Storm Before The Storm, a look at a slice of the Roman Republic, specifically from 146 to 76 BC.

Why this era? It is the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic, before the more famous generation of Caesar, Cicero, and Antony. It is when the elements that led to the rot of the republic began. This is the age of the Gracchus brothers (Tiberius and Gaius), Marius, and Sulla. Mike Duncan introduces them as well as a cast of supporting characters as he lays out the historical, military, and political events of the time.

I learned much about the various bits of the republic and how it worked (in theory and in actuality). The Roman Republic informed the US republic. The differences and similarities to the US republic were fascinating to realize. The Senate, which was composed of the aristocracy, was juxtaposed against the Assembly, which was composed of plebians. The Assembly could pass laws and carry out capital sentences. The Senate could not. The republic was ruled by a pair of consuls, who were elected for single year tenures. In times of crisis, either consul could appoint a dictator, whose power expired after six months.

Duncan walks the reader through a turbulent time in the republic and shows what crises and events led to its unravelling. In essence, the republic devolved into more and more frequent spasms of violence. The republic was fast fading away under violence and the breaking of written and unwritten laws and norms.

Benjamin Franklin’s words echoed in my mind. At the close of the Constitutional Convention, someone asked Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—A Republic or a Monarchy?” He replied, “A Republic. If you can keep it.”

Clearly, the ancient Romans couldn’t—which begs the question that maybe the US cannot either. Duncan acknowledges the parallels between what happened to the Roman Republic and what is happening today in the American Republic.

“Further investigation into this period reveals to the modern reader an era full of historical echoes that will sound eerily familiar to the modern reader. The final victory over Carthage in the Punic Wars led to rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarization, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct, the privatization of the military, rampant corruption, endemic social and ethnic prejudice, battles over access to citizenship and voting rights, ongoing military quagmires, the introduction of violence as a political tool, and a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.” (pages xx-xxii)

Slowly bit by bit, those in political and/or military power in the Roman Republic dismantled the foundation of the republic without realizing that the structure would collapse. Mos maiorum, or the unwritten rules, were broken again and again—consulships were extended, those in power killed in sacred spots, the requirements for joining the legions changed. A vicious cycle started. As norms were broken, even more norms were broken until the republic became lawless, politics violent, and society controlled by mobs. And into this chaos came the rise of a monarchical system with the Caesars.

The issues facing the republic sound eerily familiar today: economic inequality, redistribution of land (wealth), grain dole (welfare), court (justice) reform, citizenship. The major power players all used policies of convenience to align groups in society, such as policies to seize public land to distribute to the rural poor or granting citizenship or voting rights to the Italian, i.e., non-Roman masses. The struggle for power devolved into two opposing worldviews and a struggle to win at all costs. It was not so much that you were right or that your position would help the republic or a portion of the populace; the goal was do whatever to destroy your rival. (Sound familiar?) Destruction for destruction’s sake leads to nothing good.

The Storm Before The Storm covers the geographical areas where Rome ventured: northern Africa, Gaul, tribes north of the Italian Alps, Asia (modern-day Greece and Turkey). The almost constant warfare, which brought slaves (who displaced workers, which led to economic inequality) and booty to Rome, drained the Roman Republic of men to fight. Rome had to exempt new recruits from being landowners, which ended up exacerbating problems in the republic. New recruits were loyal to their generals, not to the Senate or the republic. A career in the legions became a possibility as did a path for political power for the non-aristocracy.

Mike Duncan is best known for his history podcasts, first The History of Rome and currently Revolutions. As a scholar of history, he has a knack for explaining historical events. He has found his niche outside of academia through his podcasts, travel packages to historical sites, and now his book. Parts of his personality come through in his writing, but even more so in his podcasts. Due to the success of The Storm Before The Storm, Duncan will thankfully be writing more, bringing more history to the masses.

History reveals trends, events, and unintended side effects. We are exhorted to learn history or we are doomed to repeat it. The Storm Before the Storm opens a window into the downfall of one republic. In its reflection, we can see our own and possibly learn from it.

Book review: March: Book Three

The March trilogy covers five years of the civil rights movement experienced by legend John Lewis. Like the other books (Book One, Book Two), March: Book Three weaves the events of the time (1963 through 1965) with the inauguration of President Obama.

The book starts with the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which four young girls were killed. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke after the bombing about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy that produced the killers. Going after the murderers isn’t sufficient, he said. One must dig out the roots that produced the tree with the fruit of violence.

Book Three discusses the wave of killings and protests that followed. The goal of the protests in Selma was for all African Americans to be able to register to vote and to vote. In Selma’s county, only 2.1% of African Americans were registered to vote. Barriers to registration were huge: limited registration times, literacy (and other farcical) tests, publication of registrants’ names in public papers (which invited firings from employers and attacks by the Klan).

Things also got heated next door in Mississippi. Activists organized the Mississippi Freedom Vote, a mock election with African-American candidates. Similar to a tactic used in South Africa, the mock election’s goal was two-fold: give African Americans a sense of what it was like to vote AND dramatize their exclusion from voting.

Activists also organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the state’s Democratic Party and its white delegates to the Democratic convention in 1964. MFDP was thwarted from getting an adequate number of delegates. (The powers-that-be offered them a paltry two delegates.)

While the Democratic Party was composed of segregationists, the Republican Party was not much different (or better). In 1964, the Republican Party was the party of Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Rockefeller, who lost the Republican nomination, begged in vain for the party not to turn its back on its guiding principles.

Book Three prints a lengthy, moving quote from Rockefeller that could speak for the present times:

“It is essential that this convention repudiate, here and now, any doctrinaire, militant minority—whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan, or Bircher—which would subvert this party to purposes alien to the very basic tenets which gave this party birth. Precisely one year ago today on July 14, 1963, I issued a statement wherein I warned that: ‘The Republican Party is in real danger of subversion by a radical, well-financed, and highly disciplined minority. At the time, I pointed out that the purposes of this minority were: Wholly alien to the sound and honest conservatism that has firmly based the Republican Party in the best of a century’s traditions, wholly alien to the sound and honest Republican liberalism that has kept the party abreast of human needs in a changing world, wholly alien to the broad middle course that accommodates the mainstream of Republican principles.’” (page 102)

The book highlights the changes within SNCC, the organization that John Lewis chaired. The organization, working in the trenches in Alabama, felt threatened by SCLC and Martin Luther King, Jr. They saw others swoop into town to steal the limelight and the credit after they did the hard, grassroots effort. Also, funding was not split equally between different organizations. SNCC, considered the youngest and most radical, received the least funding. And SNCC was changing, moving away from its nonviolence roots.

In Book Three, numerous other people important to the protests and activities of the civil rights movement show up. I was tickled to see James Baldwin mentioned in passing. And I was surprised to read about Malcolm X’s seeming change of heart and tactics prior to the Selma march.

Harry Belafonte took John Lewis and others on a short tour of Africa. During that trip, Lewis learned how much Africans looked to Malcolm X for inspiration. Although SNCC was deemed radical in the US, in Africa it was not radical enough. In Africa, Malcolm X had already started his shift in philosophy; his focus was no longer on race but poverty, reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s focus on poverty right before he was assassinated. What could have been accomplished in the fight against poverty if neither leader had been assassinated?

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a milestone, it was severely deficient. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not ban literacy tests or other voting restrictions. There was nothing in the act to ensure voter registration. A Voting Rights Act was needed to ensure the right to register and to vote.

The Civil Rights Movement described in Book Three ends with the march from Selma to Montgomery and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Malcolm appears as a foil to Martin Luther King, Jr. Seen as a radical element compared to King, Malcolm used his reputation to strike fear in whites in hopes that they would acquiesce to King’s demands rather than deal with the unpredictability and likely violence from Malcolm X and his followers. The march from Selma to Montgomery finally ended in success on the third attempt, on March 21, 1965. (The inspiring marches from Selma are retold in the movie Selma.)

The five years of the movement that the three books of March cover are awe-inspiring. Clearly the work is not done and in some ways the movement has slid backwards. The books remind us of what was done and how it was accomplished in the 1950s and 1960s. History can be a guide, illuminating, encouraging, enlightening. March does all three. Through its illustrations and text, March shows us what is possible and educates us about the important historical events and people who made a difference.