Monday, December 21, 2015

The Age of Burke: On the Waterfront

James Burke’s allies considered him honest and fearless, driven by high ideals of civic pride and duty. His political enemies questioned his motives and called him a demagogue. He sometimes called them “corporate interests” or “foreign capitalists.” 
     He was no friend of Elias Lyman’s coal company, for example, or of the Masons and the railroads. And in his 1904 race for mayor, he forced the Republic candidate, Rufus Brown, to publicly deny that his campaign was secretly financed by Burlington Gas Light.
     One of the most difficult crusades of Burlington’s early progressive era put him at odds with both the Central Vermont and Rutland Railroads over public ownership of waterfront land. The railroads had owned and controlled the water’s edge since Burlington emerged as a commercial center, and weren’t willing to let the city take any part of the land for a “public wharf.”
     That was precisely what Burke proposed to do.

     The first breakthrough came in 1902. In December, only days after the city won a legislative go-ahead for the light plant – what eventually became the Burlington Electric Department – it also received approval to operate a “public wharf…for the landing, loading and unloading of boats and vessels.” Plus, the city would be permitted to take land by eminent domain. By 1905 Burke was confident that Burlington would have a wharf within a few months.
     But months ended up stretching into years.
     The railroads were refusing to sell the city any land, so Burke hunted down some frontage at the foot of Maple Street that had, as he put it, “escaped the eyes of corporate greed.”  Most land in that area was owned by the Rutland line. In June 1905, as the city sought construction bids, the railroad won a court order to block construction. Filling in the slip would destroy its “property right,” the company argued.
     The court battle dragged on into the next mayoral election. The Burlington Free Press, whose staff member Bigelow frequently ran against Burke, urged the city to negotiate with the other railroad, Central Vermont, for a lease while simultaneously accusing the mayor of trying to “make political capital” out of the issue.
     Burke won anyway, by 140 votes, mainly based on his popularity in waterfront neighborhoods. In his fourth annual message, he charged that, “The citizens of Burlington are getting impatient over this question (the wharf)…An outraged people will hold us responsible if we show any inclination of shirk our duty in this great battle now going on with corporate interests which are ever vigilant and successful in watching after their own interests.”
     Despite public opinion or impassioned speeches, Central Vermont aggressively opposed the city’s public wharf plans for several years in a variety of legal actions, including a 1909 Supreme Court case.
     Like the private utilities, the railroads wanted to establish that Burlington had no legal right to run a public business that would “enter into competition with the world at large.” The state’s top judges disagreed. Vermont government could “build or aid others in building, wharves for public use and in aid of trade and commerce; and it is equally clear that whatever the state can do in this behalf, it can delegate to a municipality to do.” It could be almost anything of special local benefit, anything considered “proper means for promoting the prosperity of its people.”
     The decision was handed down on January 16, 1909, less than two months before Burke returned to City Hall after defeats in 1907 and 1908. James Tracy, who thought Burke tactless and possibly a dangerous demagogue, had to concede in a Vermonter Magazine profile that his persistence and success on the wharf issue had netted him “prestige among the common people who look upon him as a safe leader and wise counselor.”
     The negotiation nevertheless dragged on. The economic establishment apparently hoped to win by wearing down the opposition and exploiting technicalities. By 1910 Burlington was under legal attack by the railroads, Burlington Light and Power, and the Masons. And before all the disputes could be resolved, Burke – the politician at the center of the storm – was out of office again. Burke’s old rival Robert Roberts had returned to electoral politics after a ten-year absence to defeat the mayor in five of the city’s six recently-redrawn wards.
     But comebacks were Burke’s forte. In 1913 he made yet another one, and immediately picked up his discussions with the railroads. Now the mayor linked the purchase of wharf property with plans for a Union Passenger Station nearby. The Public Service Commission was invited into the debate, and the Supreme Court ironed out the details. Both Central Vermont and the Rutland Railroad eventually accepted the city’s proposal.
     In 1915 the city purchased 160 feet of lakefront property near College Street for $8,000. A decade-long battle with corporate power had been won.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Burlington in the Age of Burke

For these Burlington stories, let’s start in September 1902, ten years before Teddy Roosevelt’s famous 1912 visit to Barre. The President had been to the Queen City a year earlier. That day he was riding with Percival Clement on his railroad after a visit with Vermont Lieutenant Governor Nelson Fisk at Isle LaMotte. Then word came through that President McKinley had been shot by what the papers were calling a “crazed anarchist.”
     Now, a year later, Roosevelt – ridiculed as a “wild man,” that “damned cowboy” hated by Wall Street, Vice President under McKinley for less than a year – triumphantly returned to Burlington as President.
     Clement was about to play a strange and convoluted role in Vermont’s progressive history. Decades before his stiff resistance to womens’ suffrage he was part of a progressive fusion movement that attempted to overthrow the Proctor Republicans. He was also a railroad tycoon, owner of the Rutland Herald, and friend of Teddy Roosevelt.
     In 1902 Mayor Donley C. Hawley stood with the new president at the train barn near the waterfront, surrounded by flags and bunting. Roosevelt told the Vermonters, “You have always kept true to the old America ideals – the ideals of individual initiative, of self-help, of rugged independence, of the desire to work and willingness, if need, to fight.”
     The truth is, Republicans like Hawley were actually suspicious of “their” president. His rhetoric about a “square deal” for working people and control of big business sounded, well…. radical. But Democrats like James Burke were unabashed admirers. Burke was an Irish Catholic blacksmith and a leading spokesman for the city’s growing Democratic Party. He had been an alderman and run unsuccessfully for mayor in 1900 and 1902. Now he was part of a statewide fusion movement with dissident Republicans. Like Roosevelt, he projected himself as a pragmatic reformer, thriving on idealism, moral outrage and an ability to inspire the masses.

March 3, 1903. The hotly contested mayoral race between Burke and Hawley drew an overflow crowd to the city clerk’s office that night. The men in the room – remember, only men could vote – perched on windowsills or stood on the rail that surrounded the aldermanic table. As the results for various wards were announced the winning side cheered. Hawley, who was a surgeon, came out of top in the affluent areas. But Burke’s persistence was finally paying off in the inner-city, immigrant wards. And he had two compelling issues: a proposed city-owned light plant and local licensing of saloons.
     When the final votes were tallied, Hawley had a three-vote margin. But that was because City Clerk Charles Allen refused to count ballots marked twice. Burke was livid and took the matter to the Vermont Supreme Court – and won, gaining certification of an 11-vote victory by early summer.
     It took more time, but he also got a light plant. Two years later, during his third one-year term, Burke’s daughter Loretta pressed a button at the bandstand in City Hall Park energizing two circuits of streetlights with power from the newly built plant.

Attempted Fusion

Burke’s political vision stretched beyond the borders of the city, and by 1906 he became further embroiled in an effort to wrest control of the governor’s office from the Republicans. To attempt it he forged a delicate personal alliance with Percival Clement.
Percival Clement
    The Burke-Clement alliance was largely rooted in political expediency. Both men wanted to be governor and knew that a Democrat could not win statewide. Both had also been mayors, Clement in Rutland, although his control of the Rutland Railroad didn’t ease negotiations about the Burlington waterfront, which was owned by Clement’s line and Central Vermont Railway. But there was also an ideological affinity that bridged the class barrier between them. Both were ardent supporters of the “local option” to issue saloon licenses and vocal critics of graft by marble and coal interests dominating the GOP.
     In 1906, Roosevelt was on the attack against the beef, oil and tobacco trusts. In Vermont Clement was still warring with the Proctors, especially Fletcher Proctor, the Republican candidate for governor.
     Burke had won another term as mayor over Walter Bigelow, the 40-year-old chairman of the state Republican Party and night editor at the Burlington Free Press.  He saw a “bright and glorious future” for the city and wanted people to move beyond “a narrow or partisan point of view.” That was also part of the reason he was involved in the movement Clement was building.
     At first it was called the “Bennington idea,” referring to the town where petitions first circulated for Clement to lead an independent movement that aimed to “save the state” after 50 years of Republican rule. But Clement’s supporters felt that a fusion with Democrats was essential, so 1906 they tried to induce Burke to join the ticket.
     Burke wasn’t persuaded. Giving Clement the Democratic nomination would effectively put him in control of the party. If a Democrat won the presidency in 1908 Clement would get to hand out the patronage. The Democrats were still divided on June 28, the day both the Independent and Democratic state conventions were held in Burlington.
     The Independents convened in City Hall. The Democrats met at the armory. Meanwhile a joint committee worked out an agreement to divide the state ticket. The Democrats would field candidates for half of the slate, Independents would fill the rest. After accepting the Independent nod Clement walked with Burke to the Strong Theater for a joint assembly.
     The debate over fusion was heated. Some people accused Burke of opposing the idea because he couldn’t head the ticket. Eventually speaking for himself, Burke reminded the audience that he had backed fusion under Clement four years earlier. But the “local option” for alcohol was no longer a galvanizing issue and Clement was, after all, still basically a Republican.
     The Democrats rejected Burke’s advice and approved a joint slate headed by Clement and Democrat C. Herbert Pape. With more than a thousand people packing the theater, Clement took center stage, Burke at his side, and launched into a long and fiery attack on the Republican machine, the marble companies, and the inefficiency and graft that was robbing the people.
     Burke actively backed Clement’s war on the Proctor Republicans, spending much of his time that summer on the campaign trail attacking Republican graft and rule. As usual, his rhetoric was also rich with praise of Roosevelt, calling him “the greatest Republican since Lincoln and the greatest Democrat since Jefferson.”
     “Reform is in the air,” he shouted from the back of Clement’s private train that fall, “and Vermont will share in the benefits that come from the general revolt being made against ring rule and graft.” Burke envisioned a popular coalition of Lincoln Republicans and Jefferson Democrats that would wipe out party lines. It might even combat corporate lobbying on labor issues like the nine-hour day and minimum wage.
     But Fusion was defeated by Republicans united behind Proctor that November. And the following March, Burke came up short in his first mayoral race in five years – to Walter Bigelow. The defeat was devastating for political allies who lost their jobs and watched old opponents return to power. Twelve years later, in 1918, Clement did become governor – as a Republican.

NEXT: On the Waterfront

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Progressive Movements and The Vermont Way

In conjunction with a recreation of Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 visit to Vermont during his Progressive Party run for president, in 2012 writer and historian Greg Guma presented stories and thoughts at the Vermont History Center about the evolving nature of progressive politics in Vermont.

The journey  includes vignettes and impressions on how the Anti-Masons briefly took the state, why feminist Clarina Nichols decided to leave, Burlington’s early progressive mayor James Burke and a 1906 fusion alliance that almost overturned the Proctors, progressive Republicans in the 1940s and Phil Hoff’s 60s breakthrough, the Green Mountain Parkway fight, a Vermont conservative who stood up to McCarthy, and the rise of Bernie Sanders.


William Palmer, Anti-Mason Governor
Thaddeus Stevens, Anti-Mason politician and Republican leader
Clarina Nichols, feminist leader who left to keep fighting
Percival Clement, Railroad tycoon, fusion candidate and GOP Governor
James Burke, progressive Burlington Mayor and Clement ally
James Paddock Taylor, Green Mountain Parkway visionary
George Aiken, Republican Governor & Senator
Ernest Gibson, Jr, liberal Republican Governor who expanded the state’s role
Ralph Flanders, US Senator who saved the country from McCarthy
Phil Hoff, first Democratic Governor in 100 years
Bernie Sanders, socialist who changed Burlington and became a US Senator

Elizabeth Dwyer, the inimitable editorial page editor of the Bennington Banner, used to talk about erecting a toll road at the border with upstate New York. Flatlanders were finding it way too easy to get in. It wouldn’t hurt to discourage them a bit.
     Liz was not conservative in the typical sense of the word. At 60 she remained a liberal skeptic and a compassionate realist with a great sense of irony. But that also meant she could see a downside to being attractive to outsiders, the pitfalls of progress, and the dangers of undervaluing what this place has going for it.
     Liz was also one of my post-graduate history teachers. My attraction to the past, and specifically to the stories, people and values of this state, did not emerge in a classroom. No course work involved. My undergrad degree was a Bachelor of Science in mass communication and broadcasting.
     My early passions were capturing and interpreting reality in photos, on film and early video and telling stories that engaged and informed. Forty-four years ago, however, when first working as a journalist – covering several southwestern Vermont communities – I also developed an urge to understand the real who, how and why behind what was happening around me. The backstory.
     Even if it was just a rough first draft of history, reporting should incorporate as much context and background as possible … on a deadline.
     As Ken Burns puts it, history is a table around which we can all sit and have a conversation. I’ve come to believe that we can make better decisions by understanding the past, re- examining, recreating, reliving, and remembering it.
     The stories assembled here come from material -- anecdotes, documents, books, interviews – collected over those four decades. In 1976, responding to the official bicentennial celebrations, a group of us first developed a people’s history – Vermont’s Untold History, we called it. Being an editor has also helped. In that role over the years I’ve reviewed and worked with the ideas of hundreds of writers. More recently, I’ve been writing a study of the state that revisits its history, opens some new areas for inquiry, and searches for core values.
     Before going any further a small disclosure – I’m not a native Vermonter. When I arrived in Bennington in 1968 this was an important, potentially damaging revelation. I was a flatlander, a Yorker even. But I don’t feel that way anymore, and my son is definitely a Vermonter – though like too many of our young people, he has left (temporarily, we hope) for life in Manhattan.
     Fortunately, I am not irony deficient.

The Hoff Effect

When I arrived a period known as the Hoff era was winding down. Phil Hoff was one of Vermont’s breakthrough governors, the first Democrat elected to the office in a century. Phil served through much of the turbulent 1960s.  “You have to stand up for things,” he told me in 1998, “and if that results in you being defeated, it’s a risk you take.”
     Phil was speaking from experience. After three terms as governor, he was beaten decisively in a 1970 run for the US Senate by incumbent Republican Winston Prouty. Years later he still felt that the main reason for that defeat was his civil rights activism, particularly sponsorship of the Vermont-New York Youth Project, which brought Black teenagers up from New York to work and play with White Vermonters. Others point to the polarized politics of the Nixon era, or a whisper campaign concerning his alleged problem with alcohol.
     Phil says that latent racism emerged in reaction to the Youth Project. And his position on racial equality is certainly a hallmark of his progressive contribution.
     A brief flashback… In the early 1950s, when Phil arrived from Massachusetts just out of Cornell Law School, he heard that the Black captain of UVM’s football team, who had brought his girlfriend up for a weekend visit, was refused a motel room. Outraged, he joined forces with some local clergy and UVM faculty – at a time, by the way, when such discrimination was commonplace.
     Later, a Black Air Force officer was refused the right to buy a home when a real estate agent met vocal, local opposition. As Phil put it, the “positive forces” fought back and launched the state’s first anti-racist coalition. Phil said later: “We would go to the neighborhood with a priest, a minister, and a rabbi. And you know, we won every time.”
    In the 60s being a Vermont progressive meant supporting changes in the nature and scope of state government. A keystone achievement was, of course, legislative reappointment, which profoundly altered the balance of political power. Those years also brought a major expansion of the state college system, state takeover of welfare, urban renewal, the first rehab programs at Vermont prisons, and the reluctant acceptance that a regional approach to planning was needed.
     Other initiatives didn’t fare so well, or were ahead of their time. Regionalized school districts and fair housing legislation came later. As Joe Sherman put it in Fast Lane on a Dirt Road, “Vermonters seemed willing, at least for a while, to go with the irresistible tug of the American century. They were just climbing on board 60 years late.”
     Phil Hoff’s rhetoric was clearly progressive, with a strong emphasis on fairness and equality. During his time outside money and Great Society programs poured in. He also encouraged recreational development and welcomed out-of-state investment in manufacturing. On the other hand, he also felt that, to keep government closer to people, regional solutions should be considered more seriously. He was sensitive to criticism of “uncontrolled” growth and argued that dependence on local tax revenues to support schools was one of the main culprits.
     And he pushed for a statewide development plan. “It probably wasn’t very good,” he admitted later, “but no one had ever done it before.”

That’s one kind of progressive – moderate, expansive in outlook, strong for equality, growth and good government. But the definition has evolved over the years, in Vermont and generally. Tonight I would like to discuss a series of progressive eras -- each with a distinct image, program or approach -- and talk about some of the people who played key roles.
     People like James Burke, elected mayor of Burlington seven times between 1903 and 1933. George Aiken and Ernest Gibson, Republicans who challenged their party’s orthodoxy in the 1930s and 40s. Ralph Flanders, who stood up when it counted during the McCarthy Era. Clarina Nichols, a feminist pioneer who left the state to pursue her dream, and of course Bernie Sanders.
     But first, let’s return to the early 19th century and the birth of the first truly alternative political party in US history, a party that had its greatest success in Vermont but also created a constitutional crisis that led to the birth of the Vermont state senate. I’m talking of course about….the Anti-Masons, an early example of populism rooted in a desire for transparency and suspicion of elites.

NEXT: The First Third Party

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Clarina's Choice: Moving On for Women's Rights

Lest I leave the impression that Vermont has always been fertile territory for free thinkers, consider Clarina Nichols, who ultimately traded Vermont for Kansas to fulfill her dreams.
     In 1847, Nichols' articles deploring the lack of property rights for women sparked state legislation granting married women the right to inherit, own and bequeath property. Two years later her efforts led to more reforms; laws allowing women to insure the lives of their husbands, legalizing joint property ownership, and broadening inheritance rights for widows.
     But she was frustrated. Until women had the right to vote, Nichols felt they would be basically powerless. She wrote: “We are the best judges…and should hold in our own hands, in our own right, means for acquiring the one and comprehending the other…Women must look to the ballot for self-protection.”
     Even as a young girl Nichols understood the importance of a “scientific” education for women. If they received any schooling at all, the main lessons focused on home skills like needlepoint, comportment and etiquette. At her graduation in 1829, she delivered a speech titled “Comparative of a Scientific and an Ornamental Education for Women.”
     After briefly teaching she married Justin Carpenter, a Baptist minister, and the family moved to Herkimer in New York.  The next decade was spent raising three children and running a seminary for young women. But in 1840 she returned to Vermont – with the children but not Mr. Carpenter – and started writing for the Windham County Democrat. Three years later she divorced. Six days after the divorce was final she married George Nichols, editor and publisher of the Democrat.
     When her new husband became ill she took over the editing, and under her direction the paper’s circulation grew from 100 to 1,850. She made it more literary and used its pages to advocate for women’s rights and abolition, as well as against the use of alcohol.
     She told an 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Worcester, Massachusetts, “It is a fact that our wearing apparel belongs to our husbands and when they choose to pawn or sell our clothing for drink, they can do so.”
     Nichols’ suffrage work led to a long-standing friendship with Susan B. Anthony but conflict with Vermont’s legislative establishment. Her first appearance at the Statehouse – the first ever by a woman – outraged many people in the audience. The editor of the Rutland Herald threatened to come to the capital with a man’s suit and dress her in it.
     After Nichols testified in favor of women’s right to vote in school district elections, the Education Committee concluded that “women are the proper educators and trainers of the young.” But committee members remained unconvinced on suffrage. Instead of acting on the issue, they recommended that women “entrust the advocacy of their views and interests to a male relative or friend.”
     Nichols decided that it was time to try a state where she could be more effective. One of Vermont’s restless spirits was moving on.
     She picked Kansas, in part, because a temperate climate might improve her husband’s health. But George Nichols died just a year after the move in 1854. Still, her basic hunch was correct. In Kansas, she was able to win campaigns to insert many rights for women into the constitution, including voting rights in school elections. In 1866 she moved to Washington, DC with her daughter, where she ran the Home for Colored Orphans.
     The same year that Nichols left Vermont Lucy Stone, already a leading voice for abolition and suffrage, gave a fiery speech in Randolph. People should withhold their taxes until women had the right to vote, she urged. But it was her appearance that created the real stir during that visit. Focusing on her attire, reporters wondered why attractive young women in the audience were parading around in “unfeminine” bloomers. Stone and other activist women had become admirers of Amelia Bloomer’s trousered dresses, which permitted women to work more freely, especially when carrying things.
     Vermont’s leaders resisted giving women the vote right up to the end. When a suffrage bill was passed by the state legislature in 1919, Governor Percival Clement called it unconstitutional and refused to sign. In 1920, when the state was pressured to ratify the 19th amendment, the governor again declined to help, refusing to call a special legislative session.
     It became national law anyway. A year later, Edna L. Beard, a former school superintendent, became the first woman elected to the state legislature.