“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Friday, March 7, 2014

Times of Cleavage: The Age of Burke 5

Among his many loyal supporters James Burke was known as honest, fearless and filled with high ideals. His enemies meanwhile questioned his motives and considered him dangerous. Describing his speaking style, a writer for Vermonter Magazine once remarked, “The ideas were expressed with the intensity of conviction that struck a popular chord in the hearts of the proletariat among whom his strength has been greatest.”
     Speaking for himself, Burke proclaimed, “I believe in a progressive spirit, no going backward.” 
     Upon his death in 1943 the Burlington Free Press, a frequent critic of Burke, called him “the grand old man of Vermont Democrats," a tireless fighter “stirring the smoldering embers of democracy when they seemed to be dying out.”[1]
     Still, nothing lasts forever, and the Queen City had already drifted back toward conservatism by the 1930s. The Irish led a growing opposition, but Old Americans – “Yankees” with civic and financial power who still clung to their sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority – continued to dominate local culture. Upper class residents, many of whom literally lived up “on the hill,” fought against unions and the minimum wage, and offered little charitable assistance through their churches. People should “help themselves,” they advised. 
      And they weren’t beyond covering up their own faults. After a housing survey was completed in the 30s it was quickly buried. Some of Burlington’s leading citizens, it turned out, owned several of the shabbiest tenements.
      Sociologist Elin Anderson provided the most vivid portrait of the Queen City during the Depression years in her award-winning study, We Americans, published by Harvard Press in 1937. The city was conservative, rural and individualist, she concluded, a far cry from the liberal, urban and socially-engaged place it would become a half century later. In the 1930s it had lost personal neighborliness without gaining impersonal mobility.[2]
     The dominant social group was still the Old Americans. Leading the opposition were the Irish, who cast their lot with the “have nots.” Their Democratic leanings and Catholic faith sent up red flags among the Yankees, and even some French Canadians viewed their leadership as “officious and irksome.”
     Anderson studied these three groups, along with smaller Jewish, German and Italian communities, for three years. The WPA paid the salaries of six local women who conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews. One odd finding she noted was that the community believed women, more than men, “preserved prejudicial attitudes.”

       An unusual aspect of the study was the auspices under which it was conducted: the Vermont Eugenics Survey. The eugenicist, explained Anderson, is interested in “ethnic adjustment” through “biological blending – intermarriage – of the most desirable qualities of people.” In general, eugenics focused on discouraging propagation by the so-called unfit, reflected in laws allowing sterilization of “mental defectives.” At its worst, it gave support to the concept of cultivating a “superior” breed or race, an idea linked to the rising Nazi movement in Germany at the time. 
     Anderson made no such connections; in fact, she scoffed at the notion of a “pure” American and denounced both Hitler and Burlington’s anti-Semitic Silver Shirts. She also condemned a local nursery school policy that allowed rejection of a child “solely because she is Jewish.”
      Affiliated with UVM’s zoology department, the Eugenics Survey began in 1925 with a three-year genealogical study of 62 families with “outstanding defects, deficiencies and other bad traits.” Included in this group were hundreds of paupers, illegitimate children, and even some blind and paralyzed people. A few years before Anderson arrived in Burlington, the Survey had lobbied the legislature to allow for sterilization of the “feeble-minded.”
     More constructively, Anderson’s study delineated the prevailing social and ethnic “cleavages” and unmasked the community’s WASPs, “stripping away some of the pretense by which the people on top rationalize their position,” according UVM Sociology professor Jim Loewen. “She emphasizes that the Old Americans set the status hierarchy and that what they value sets the community values. That’s pretty hard-hitting. It’s saying the Old Americans are racist, ethnicist, and classist, and get away with it because the lower groups have false consciousness.”
     The impact of “cleavage” between the Irish and French Canadians was revealed in the response to one of Anderson’s questions. Should one vote for the person “who is a member of one’s own nationality” when deciding between two qualified candidate? The findings said that French Canadians tended to vote Republican – with Yankees and, most notably, against Irish Democrats.
     The city remained divided along Yankee-foreigner, Protestant-Catholic lines until the late 1950s. Political gerrymandering helped maintain Yankee dominance. But by the late 1950s, a political alliance was forged between moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats to control city appointments and services. This open conspiracy, known as the Republicrats, ran the City of Burlington for the next two decades, right until the election of another progressive mayor named Bernie Sanders.


[1] Burlington Free Press, April 27, 1943.
[2] Material for this section was originally presented in The Way We Were, a cover story written with Sue Burton that appeared in the September 24, 1987 issue of The Vermont Vanguard Press.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Comeback Trials: The Age of Burke 4

For most people 60 was a reasonable age to slow down. But James Burke was just getting started in 1908 and made a quixotic gubernatorial run against Newport timber man George Prouty.
     Only 50 people attended his opening campaign speech, delivered during an August electrical storm. In that campaign he called for revision of the tax system, a license law on liquor, new highways throughout the state and an eight-hour day for workers. The Republicans ignored him and Prouty suggested that so few differences existed between the two parties that “there is danger of more apathy than should be in a presidential year.”
     But Burke’s real problem was that Vermont Democrats had turned away from their party’s nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan[1] and William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s chosen successor, breezed into office.  So did Prouty, who moved up after a term as lieutenant governor under Fletcher Proctor. Nevertheless, just a few months later Burke was major again, defeating Walter Bigelow by 18 votes. It was his first two-year term after the city’s charter was amended.
James Burke
     In spite of his populist activism, Burke’s support waned again and he was defeated in 1911. Two years later he was back in power, defeating A.S. Drew and calling for a major revision of the city charter. Now he wanted a “commission system” that would place management under the control of a small number of elected administrators.[2]
     When Burke became Burlington postmaster in 1915, rather than enter another mayoral race, it seemed a safe bet that his political career had finally ended. During the next years he lobbied for women’s suffrage and promoted war bonds, but local politics proceeded without him. Leadership of the Democratic Party passed to J. Holmes Jackson, a dentist who served four terms as mayor and ran for governor in 1924.
     But Burke’s retirement turned out to be temporary. When he was elected Burlington’s sole representative to the state legislature – the same year Jackson ran for governor – Burke began pushing for state approval of a city retirement fund and a building department. Within a few months he was also running for mayor again – for the 11th time.
     Burke’s political career still had another 10 years to run. But this phase was, in many ways, the most painful. At first his own party didn’t support him, persuading him to run as a Citizens party candidate. He attributed the rejection to the presence of Republicans at Democratic caucuses.
     When Jackson defeated Burke in the Democratic caucus of 1929, the Irish elder protested after the vote. “I have played the game square,” he said. “I came here tonight resolved to abide by the action of the caucus but when I see the place packed with Republicans, I refuse to accept the decision.”
     That year he ran unsuccessfully as an independent; Jackson had both the Democratic and Republican lines. Burke argued in vain that the city was overburdened with loans, overdrafts and excessive bonding, and warned about the consequences of the city’s growing debt.
     By the end of the year the stock market crashed and the Depression was on the horizon.
     Burke was back in the legislature in 1930, and returned to the Burlington scene as a Citizens candidate for mayor the following year. This time, with more than 800 people jamming City Hall for the Democratic caucus, he came out on top. A week later his Democratic opponent, Jackson, was nominated as the Republican candidate, and defeated Burke in the general election.
     The partisan power plays were signs of a deeper, more ideological struggle. Burke and his “working class” allies were disturbed by the boom-town atmosphere in Burlington, characterized by slogans such as “bigger, busier, better Burlington.” During the late 1920s the city had embarked on a building spree in hopes of becoming a convention center. Burke opposed projects such as Memorial Auditorium on economic grounds, and in his mayoral bids called for a “rigid economy,” meaning a lean city budget and a less speculative attitude.
     In 1933 his time came – again. The Depression had reached its depth, and his nemesis, Jackson, was too ill to seek another term. About 1,000 people attended both the GOP and Democratic caucuses. At the latter Burke, by this time 83 years old, handily defeated his former protégé Hugh Finnegan, who immediately pledged “absolute” support.
     The candidate promised a “sound economy and honesty.” Victory over the Republican hopeful, William Wilson, came easily. Handling city affairs in a time of economic crisis, on the other hand, required hard decisions. Expenditures had to be cut, including municipal salaries, and local government was forced to accept the sad fact that almost $100,000 in unpaid taxes was “uncollectible.”[3]
     If there was any doubt that this “progressive era” was over, Burke laid it to rest in June 1934 when 500 workers at the Queen City cotton mill went on strike. Local textile workers were in the vanguard of a national protest. But Burlington’s mayor, who had enjoyed the support of the Building Trades Union in his early mayoral campaigns, ordered the strikers back to work, warning that they would receive no relief from the city if they refused.
     The workers held out until the fall. But once the strike was over the union was left divided by discrimination against ex-strikers, disillusionment and ideological battles.
      Combining conservative and liberal tendencies, Burke ran a tight local administration while, in his role as city representative, proposing a cooperative savings and investment plan and encouragement of para-professionalism. Still, the strains of the time led to disaffection.
     Burke was defeated in his 1935 and 1937 mayoral bids, each time by a larger margin. The latter campaign was his last.

Next: After Burke - The Politics of Cleavage

[1] It was Bryan’s third run for president and his opponent William Taft was running on Roosevelt’s record. At a time of peace, prosperity and Republican trust-busting Bryan’s agrarian radicalism had lost some of its appeal. He didn’t carry a single state in the Northeast. Bryan’s position on evolution was also becoming known. In a 1905 speech, he said Darwinism represented the “law of hate” and that, if it was true, “we shall turn backward to the beast.”
[2] Mayor’s Message to the Board of Aldermen, 1914.
[3] Mayor’s Message to the Board of Alderman, 1933.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Attempted Fusion: The Age of Burke 2

James Burke’s political vision stretched beyond the borders of Burlington by 1906. He was deeply embroiled in an effort to wrest control of the governor’s office from the Republicans. To attempt this he forged a delicate personal alliance with Percival Clement, railroad tycoon and owner of the Rutland Herald, who was warring with Proctor marble interests. A joint ticket emerged with Democrat and Independent candidates, and Clement at the top.
     That summer, as Burke traveled the state attacking Republican graft and rule, he continued to call President Roosevelt “the greatest Republican since Lincoln and the greatest Democrat since Jefferson.”
     The Burke-Clement alliance was largely rooted in political expediency. Both men wanted to be governor and knew that no Democrat could win statewide. Both had also been mayors, Clement in Rutland, though his control of the Rutland Railroad didn’t ease negotiations about the Burlington waterfront, which was owned by Clement’s line and Central Vermont. 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.
     The day Theodore Roosevelt found out he was going to be president he was riding with Clement on his railroad. The Vice President had been visiting Vermont Lieutenant Governor Nelson Fisk at Isle LaMotte when word came through that the President had been shot. By 1906, Roosevelt was on the attack against the beef, oil and tobacco trusts, while in Vermont Clement was warring with marble interests, 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.” But the logic of progressive reform impelled him to influence the movement Clement was building.
     At first it was called the “Bennington idea,” referring to the town where a petition 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 decided that a fusion with Democrats was essential, so they tried to induce Burke to join the ticket.
     He 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 patronage. Thus, Burke remained a potential candidate for governor himself even after a Barre Democrat agreed to join Clement on a slate.
     The Democrats were still divided on June 28, the day of both the Independent and Democratic state conventions in Burlington.
     While the Independents convened in City Hall and the Democrats met at the armory, a joint committee worked out an agreement to divide the state ticket. The Democrats would field candidates for one half of the slate, Independents would take the rest. After accepting the Independent nod Clement walked with Burke to the Strong Theater for a joint assembly.
     Debate on fusion was heated, some people accusing Burke of opposing the idea because he couldn’t head the ticket. Speaking for himself, Burke reminded the audience that he had backed fusion under Clement four years earlier. But the “local option” for alcohol[1] 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, fiery attack on the Republic 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. As usual, his rhetoric was rich with praise of Roosevelt.
     “Reform is in the air,” he shouted from the back of the candidate’s private train, “and Vermont will share in the benefits that come from the general revolt being made against ring rule and graft.” He 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 in 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.
     Clement eventually became governor in 1918 – as a Republican. 

Next: On the Waterfront

[1] In 1902 a referendum gave towns the option of granting licenses. Four years later the authority was transferred to the Secretary of State, and in 1917 to the Commissioner of Taxes. In 1921, the old liquor laws were repealed and replaced by a system that conformed to the 18th Amendment. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the state re-assumed the power to regulate the sale and use of alcohol.