“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.

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