Milestones and Thanks

Speed racer Bob Burman, circa 1915 (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

By now, OUR POLITY regularly receives over 1,000 visits a month, a level of readership that suggests it’s firmly established.

My thanks to everyone who is visiting and reading—you’re part of a population that’s global and ever-changing.  I’m deeply grateful for your encouragement, comments, and attention.

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The picture?
That’s early race-car driver Bob Burman, but his story will have to wait till another day. . .
Click the picture to go to the source.

Woodrow Wilson Casts His Ballot

Woodrow Wilson Casts His Ballot, 1912 (Courtesy Princeton University Library via Flickr Commons)

I’d been looking for an excuse to write about Woodrow Wilson when Monday’s presidential debate, with its exchange over “horses and bayonets” and the WWI navy, came along especially to encourage me.

An interesting cache of photographs put online by the Woodrow Wilson Library includes this one of Wilson casting his ballot in the presidential election of 1912.  Wilson, then governor of New Jersey and the Democratic candidate for president, won the election in a landslide.

The photograph, with its mesh ballot receptacle, handwritten records, and air of social intimacy, casts doubt on some time-honored political verities.  How free and fair were the elections conducted with this “technology”?  Did our elective process, so often derided as “broken,” really work better in an earlier day?

In 1912, most black Americans were barred or discouraged from voting.  Community norms and party interests inflected how election rules were applied.  Until the ‘Australian’ ballot was universally adopted, casting a vote was a social act, not granted any privacy.  And party loyalty was the grease that kept the machinery running: for much of the nineteenth century, “voting” typically meant nothing more than delivering to the poll a ballot that your party had already completed for you.

Wilson’s ascent coincided with a move toward a more participatory democracy.  In 1912, US senators were still elected, not by the populace, but by the state legislatures.  A Constitutional amendment changing that would be ratified the next year.  The nominating conventions of 1912 were historic, because they were the first to include delegates chosen, not by party operatives, but by popular votes cast in the nation’s first presidential primaries.

*     *     *

A scholar-statesman not unlike Barack Obama, Wilson, a noted professor of political science and former president of Princeton University, spent just two years as New Jersey’s chief executive before catapulting to the presidency.

His path to the White House was more than a little unlikely.  The 1912 election pitted him against three other candidates: the Socialist Eugene Debs, incumbent President William Taft, and former president Theodore Roosevelt, the latter two representing the Conservative and Progressive wings of the Republican Party, respectively.  Only deep divisions within the Republican Party enabled Wilson, the first Southerner to be elected to the White House since Zachary Taylor, to succeed.  Wilson had been a dark horse in the fight for his party’s nomination, triumphing over the favorite, James Beauchamp Clark, a popular House Speaker, in the eleventh hour.

Wilson’s agenda was progressive and sophisticated, but the fractious political environment prevented him from realizing many of his cherished visions, dealing him some notable humiliations instead.  In 1913, John McCutcheon drew this cartoon drubbing Wilson’s first-year performance, yet in the succeeding years Wilson presided over many liberal reforms (e.g. women’s suffrage) and fiscal innovations (e.g. the income tax) that shape our political landscape today.  While Wilson’s approach to the Great War was adroit, he suffered a rebuke heard round the world when a Republican-controlled Senate jettisoned US participation in the new League of Nations and refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.  (Unbelievably, Wilson was the first US president to make an official trip abroad when he traveled to Europe to negotiate the Treaty in 1919.)

Image: Wilson voting in New Jersey, from this source.

Stephen Colbert on the recent attacks against the 17th Amendment here.

Florence and Margaret Make a Play for Freedom

American tennis player Florence Sutton, circa 1910 (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

The athleticism of the women competing in the London Olympics—and their outfits—underscore how dramatically women’s dress and freedom have changed in the century since women like the American tennis great Florence Sutton began trail-blazing.

Sutton’s pioneering sportsmanship—and the achievements of other women in sports like golf and swimming—were striking indications of the liberties that Progressive Era women were intent on claiming.  Circa 1900, it was rare for a respectable woman to do anything but walk, ride, or ski, partly because women were expected to be so heavily clad and partly because they were never supposed to go out unaccompanied.

While poking around for more on Florence and early American sportswomen, I made a surprising discovery.  The first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal was Chicagoan Margaret Ives Abbott (1878-1955).  She won the Olympic competition in women’s golf in Paris in 1900.  Two years later, she became the wife of noted Chicago journalist Finley Peter Dunne.  Margaret was born in India, where her father had been a merchant, but was raised in Chicago, where her mother (also named Margaret Ives Abbott) wrote for the Trib and had a literary salon.

Apparently the Paris Olympics were run in an off-hand fashion, for during her lifetime Margaret was never fully aware of what she had won.  Only after her death did historians realize that her victory in what seemed to be just another golf tournament was actually part of the Olympic competition.  And she received a bowl, not a medal.

Image: Florence Sutton circa 1910, courtesy of the Library of Congress, from this source.

June 25, 2015:
Margaret Abbott’s granddaughter, Miranda Dunne Parry,
has kindly shared this recollection of Margaret, written by her father Philip Dunne
and published in
the August 1984 issue of Golf Digest.  Enjoy!

Related:
Library of Congress photograph
of the US international female tennis players in 1895.