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Book Review: "Caste: The Origins of our Discontent" Posted - Jan 22, 2021
It seems we live in a caste society. This is the message of "Caste: The Origins of our Discontent" by Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winning author. She cites a number of sources to support her thesis, the most compelling by historian Nell Irvin Painter, who says simply and succinctly: "Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition." The author also makes the point that racial prejudice is not healthy. Indeed, she cites clinical evidence that harboring racial hatred can shorten your life, and ultimately kill you. At 388 pages the book is not overly long, and reads quite easily. However, as well as the author makes her points, she often overstates the case, with repeated stories that after awhile become tiresome. Having said that there is much here to be learned, and I recommend the book heartily.

Our nation has been long divided by race, dating back to 1619, when the first slave ship made port in Point Comfort, Virginia, and unloaded about twenty chained Africans, destined for slavery. Up to this point the concept of "white" and "black" people was unknown. The colonies were comprised of Europeans (mostly Englishmen) who did not think of themselves as white. And the arriving African slaves certainly did not think of themselves as black, but as Igbo, Yoruba, Ewe Akan, and Ndebele. White and black people were concepts that developed over time. Writes the author: "There developed a caste system, based on what people looked like, an internalized ranking, unspoken, unnamed, unacknowledged by everyday citizens even as they go about living their lives adhering to it and acting upon it subconsciously to this day."

She adds, "Caste is not a term often applied to the United States. It is considered the language of India or feudal Europe. But some anthropologists and scholars of race in America have made use of the term for decades." Indeed, the idea of "race", is a recent phenomenon in human history. It dates back to the start of the transatlantic slave trade and thus to the subsequent caste system that arose from slavery.

The word "race" likely derived from the Spanish word "raza" and was originally used to refer to the "caste or quality of authentic horses, which are branded with an iron so as to be recognized," wrote the anthropologists Audrey and Brian Smedley. As Europeans explored the world, they began using the word to refer to the new people they encountered. "Ultimately, the English in North America developed the most rigid and exclusionist form of race ideology," say the Smedleys. "In the American mind (race) was and is a statement about profound and unbridgeable differences (that) conveys the meaning of social distance that cannot be transcended."

In recent years, geneticists and anthropologists have long considered race as a manmade invention, with no basis in science or biology. In fact, the term "Caucasian", a label often ascribed to people of European descent, is a word invented by a German professor of medicine named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who was so taken with the shape of a human skull he found in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, that he applied it to the people he believed descended from there and settled in Europe.


About two decades ago, an analysis of the human genome established that all human beings are 99.9 percent the same. Concludes the geneticist J. Craig Venter: "We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world." Which means the entire racial caste system–the catalyst of hatreds and civil war–was built on what anthropologists now call "an arbitrary and superficial selection of traits," derived from "a few of the thousands of genes that make up a human being."

In other words, racism is based on a lie.

As slavery took hold in the Southern colonies, slaveholders began looking to the Bible for justification of their "peculiar institution" and, while conveniently ignoring Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, turned their attention to the Old Testament and learned that back in the Middle Ages some interpreters had described Noah's son, Ham, as bearing dark skin, and thus translated Noah's curse against him as a curse against the descendants of Ham–against all humans bearing dark skin.

They took further comfort from Leviticus, which exhorted them, "Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are around you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids." They took as further license to enslave those they considered religious heathens, to build a new country out of the wilderness. Thus, a hierarchy evolved in the New World they created, one that set those with the lightest skin above those with the darkest.

"The curse of Ham is now being executed upon his descendants," wrote Thomas Cobb, a leading Confederate and defender of slavery. "The great Architect had framed them both physically and mentally to fill the sphere in which they were thrown. His wisdom and mercy combined in constituting them thus suited to the degraded position they were destined to occupy."

Writes the author: "The United States and India would become, respectively, the oldest and the largest democracies in human history, both built on caste systems undergirded by their reading of the sacred texts of their respective cultures. In both countries, the subordinate castes were consigned to the bottom, seen as deserving of their debasement, owing to the sins of the past."

It would take a civil war, the deaths of three-quarters of a million soldiers and citizens, the assassination of a president, Abraham Lincoln, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to bring an end to slavery in the United States. Still slavery would live on in a new form of discrimination–white supremacy.

The southern white supremacists, says the author, "devised a labyrinth of laws to hold the newly freed people on the bottom rung ever more tightly, while a popular new pseudoscience called eugenics emerged to justify the renewed debasement. People on the bottom rung could be beaten or killed with impunity for any breach of the caste system, like not stepping off the sidewalk fast enough–or in trying to vote."

She also points out, that when Hitler and his band of thugs took power in Germany and focused their hatred toward European Jews, who should they turn their attention to for guidance? To the discriminatory race laws of the Jim Crow south. According to Yale legal historian James Whitman, in debating "how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich, the Nazis began by asking how the Americans did it."


"The caste system in America is four hundred years old and will not be dismantled by a single law or any one person, no matter how powerful," writes the author. "We have seen in the years since the civil rights era that laws, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, can be weakened if there is not the collective will to maintain them . . .

"Caste is a disease, and none of us is immune. It is as if alcoholism is encoded into the county's DNA, and can never be declared fully cured. It is like a cancer that goes into remission only to return when the immune system of the body politic is weakened . . .

"To imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany. It is living proof that if a caste system–the twelve-year reign of the Nazis–can be created, it can be dismantled. We make a serious error when we fail to see the overlap between our country and others, the common vulnerability in human programming, what the theorist Hannah Arendt called 'the banality of evil.'"

"What's most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon," writes philosopher David Livingston Smith, "is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It is that they were ordinary human beings."


While preparing this review, I ran across this quote by Nelson Mandela:

"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can learn to be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

Mandela, it will be remembered, spent 27 years in prison. Later, he was elected as South Africa's first black head of state. Under his watch, the government focused on dismantling the legacy of caste (a.k.a. apartheid) by tackling institutionalized racism and fostering racial reconciliation.

- END -
Book Review: "The Promised Land" by Barak Obama
Posted - Jan 15, 2021
Reading this book is highly informative–like taking a semester of college courses. Obama describes every issue and problem that faced his presidency in great detail, from the financial meltdown that he inherited, to the off-shore drilling disaster that gushed billions of barrels of crude oil into the ocean waters of the Gulf Coast. Obama is not only a quick study, but absolutely thorough in his problem-solving quest to master the facts and arrive at an equitable and just solution. At 701 pages the book is decidedly long, but it is well-written and entertaining; Obama is not only incredibly bright, but a gifted story-teller who never fails to inform while holding your attention. Incidentally, the "promised land" of the book's title is the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which brought Obama tremendous joy and personal satisfaction. Obama's book covers his early days as a community organizer up through his first four years as president.

What I appreciated most was learning how Obama put together and managed his team of advisors, staffers, speech writers, and White House cabinet. Also noteworthy is how he led them to fulfill his ambitious plans for the nation, as well as resolve various crises that confronted his administration. His relationship with his wife Michelle is particularly special, a relationship not without its problems. What's interesting is how often a good sense of humor on both their parts helped smooth over the occasional rough spots. Early in the book, it becomes evident that Michelle (a successful lawyer in her own right) is somewhat jealous of her husband's success, which she jokingly attributes to his having "magic beans" in his pocket.

On their way to a victory dinner, after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, and having been offered a new lucrative book deal, Obama writes: We were headed down the hall toward the elevator when suddenly Michelle stopped.

"Forget something?" I asked.

She looked at me and shook her head, incredulous. "I can't believe you actually pulled the whole thing off. The campaign. The book. All of it."

I nodded and kissed her forehead. "Magic beans, baby. Magic beans."

Also noteworthy is Obama's description of several world leaders, including Vladimir Putin: "Physically, he was unremarkable: short and compact–a wrestler's build, sandy hair, a prominent nose, and pale, watchful eyes . . . I noticed a casualness to his movements, a practiced disinterest in his voice that indicated someone accustomed to being surrounded by subordinates and supplicants. Someone who'd grown used to power."

His first meeting with President George W. Bush is noteworthy as well. The meeting (originally called by Republican presidential candidate John McCain) was to address the world financial crises that was threatening the nation's economy. About the White House meeting, Obama writes: "No one looked like they wanted to be there. The president certainly hadn't sounded enthusiastic when we'd spoken on the phone the previous day. I disagreed with him on just about every one of (his) major policy decisions, but I'd come to like the very man, finding him to be straightforward, disarming, and self-deprecating in his humor.

"I can't tell you why McCain thinks this a good idea," he'd said, sounding almost apologetic. He acknowledged that Hank Paulson and I were already communicating a couple times daily and expressed appreciation for my behind-the-scene help with congressional Democrats. "If I were you, Washington is the last place I'd want to be," Bush said. "But McCain asked and I can't say no. Hopefully we can keep it short."

Solving the financial crises proved to be a lesson in how to get things done in grid-lock Washington (and, at the same time, learning how to cope with the likes of Mitch McConnell, Republican leader of the Senate, and Republican House Speaker John Boehner), and would prove instructive in how to get his Affordable Health Care bill passed in both houses of Congress. The stakes were high, as Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel warned him. "If you lose, your presidency will be badly weakened. And nobody understands that better than McConnell and Boehner."

"We better not lose then," Obama said.

"My interest in healthcare was beyond policy or politics," admits Obama. "It was personal . . . Each time (on the campaign trail) I met a parent struggling to come up with money to get treatment for a sick child, I thought back to the night Michelle and I had to take (our) three-month old Sasha to the emergency room for what turned out to be viral meningitis–the terror and helplessness we felt as the nurses whisked her away for a spinal tap, and the realization that we might never have caught the infection in time had the girls not had a regular pediatrician we felt comfortable calling in the middle of the night . . . Most of all, I thought of (my) mom . . . Passing a healthcare bill wouldn't bring (her) back. . . . But it would save somebody's mom out there, somewhere down the line."

After getting the Healthcare bill through Congress, the next crisis facing the Obama Administration was the H1 N1 virus. At the time there was no known vaccine. Obama urged his health care team of experts to get out in front of the virus and find a remedy. Honesty with the public was key. Writes Obama: "Decisions would be made based on the best available science, and we were going to explain each step of our response to the public–including detailing what we did and didn't know . . . Although the United States did not escape unscathed–more than 12,000 Americans lost their lives–we were fortunate that this particular strain of H1 N1 turned out to be less deadly than the experts had feared, and the news that the pandemic had abated by mid-2010 didn't generate headlines. Still, I took great pride in how well our team had performed."

One of his first presidential trips took him to the Czech Republic, where he met poet-turned-politician Vaclav Havel. "Havel, as much as anyone, had given moral voice to the grassroots democracy movements that had brought the Soviet era to an end. Along with Nelson Mandela and a handful of other living statesmen, he'd also been a distant role model for me. I'd read his essays while in law school. Watching him maintain his moral compass even after his side had won power and he'd assumed the presidency had convinced me that it was possible to enter politics and come out with your soul intact."

One of the more difficult accomplishments of the Obama Presidency was achieving the Iran Nuclear Deal, which placed heavy restrictions on Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons. At first Iran would not even consider negotiations, however, a key meeting with Soviet president Dmitry Medvedev in London paved the way and a hard-won treaty was eventually worked out.

One of the biggest disasters to face the Obama Administration was a giant oil spill off the Southern Coast of America. It was an ecological disaster that seemed to defy a solution, which Republicans eventually call "Obama's Katrina."

Writes Obama: "To that point in my presidency, I'd maintained a fundamental confidence that no matter how bad things got, whether with the banks, the auto companies, Greece or Afghanistan. I could always come up with a solution through sound process and smart choices."

The well was located in the Macondo oil field, one mile below the ocean's surface. Every attempted fix failed, while crude oil gushed unabated to the surface, created an oil slick that would grow to roughly six-hundred square miles, and poison fish, dolphins, and sea turtles, and threaten long-term damages to marshes, estuaries, and inlets that were home to birds and other wildlife. Meanwhile, news outlets reported daily on the mounting damages and the fact nothing seemed to be getting done to plug the well. Obama made a number of public relations visits to the area, while seeking ways to plug the well.

The BP Oil Company was responsible for the disaster and agreed to cover all clean-up expenses, but their engineers didn't have a clue to successfully caping the well. Finally, Obama turned to his energy secretary Steve Chu, who recruited a team of independent geophysicists and hydrologists to work with him. A number of so-called blowout preventers installed by BP engineers had already failed. The solution? Fitting a second, smaller blowout preventer–called a capping stack–on top of the one that had failed. Once in place, a series of sequential valves on the unit were closed, the cap held, and the oil leak stopped.

As luck would have it, no sooner had the leak been plugged, than a hurricane swept into the Gulf Coast, with heavy winds that roiled the sea and threatened to dislodge the cap. But the cap held, and for the first time in eighty-seven days oil wasn't leaking from the Macondo well.

"There were no celebrations in the White House," writes Obama . . . "just enormous relief." It would take a couple more months and a series of additional procedures before BP declared the Macondo well permanently sealed.

The damage to the Gulf Coast was not as bad as thought, and the severely impacted fishing industry, recovered faster than anticipated. As if to demonstrate that the Gulf waters were safe, Obama took his family to Panama Beach, Florida, for a two-day vacation, "to boost the region's tourism industry." A photo was taken of Obama and his daughter Sasha splashing in the water, "a signal to Americans that it was safe to swim in the Gulf."

One of the perks of being president was being entertained by famous performers, in Obama's case it was a performance by Bob Dylan that particularly stood out. Writes Obama: "I can still picture Bob Dylan, with just a bassist, a piano player, and his guitar, tenderly reworking 'The Times they Are a-Changin'. When he finished, he stepped off the stage, shook my hand, gave a little grin and bow in front of me and Michelle, and vanished without a word."

On China Obama writes: "I thought Clinton and Bush had made the right call in encouraging China's integration into the global economy–history told me that a chaotic and impoverished China posed a bigger threat to the United States than a prosperous one."

In May 2009, Obama decided it was time to find Osama bid Landen, whose whereabouts had been a mystery since December 2001, and tasked his support staff to begin a search. "I want a report on my desk every thirty days describing our progress," said Obama.

A day before the ninth anniversary of 9/11, Leon Panetta and his CIA deputy Mike Morell asked to see him. "We think we have a potential lead on bin Laden," they reported. They had a fix on a man who resembled bin Laden, living in a walled compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. After further investigation a plan was hatched to invade the compound and either kidnap or kill bin Laden. A special ops mission was planned, headed by the Defense Department's Vice Admiral William McRaven, whom Obama would come to like. "The chance to work closely with the men and women of the U.S. armed forces–to witness firsthand their teamwork and sense of duty–had been one of the most humbling aspects of my two years in office. And if I'd had to pick one individual to represent everything right about our military, Bill McRaven might have been that person."

Several options were put forth. After Obama chose the one that seemed to have the best chance of succeeding, he gave McRaven the green light to dispatch the SEAL team and helicopter assault force to a base in Afghanistan, and await further orders. There was no guarantee of success. Even up to the last minute, the CIA continued to assess the chances of success. "I know we're trying to quantify factors as best we can," Obama told them. "But ultimately, this is a fifty-fifty call. Let's move on."

Writes Obama: "I officially gave the go-ahead for the Abbottabad mission, emphasizing that McRaven had full operational control and that it would be up to him to determine the exact timing of the raid . . . .

"(On May 2, 2011), at two p.m. eastern time, two Black Hawk helicopters that had been modified for stealth lifted off from Jalalabad Airfield, carrying twenty-three members of the SEAL team . . . for the commencement of what was officially known as 'Operation Neptune's Spear'."

Meanwhile in the White House Situation Room, Obama joined with Leon Panetta–who was on a videoconference line from Langley, relaying information from McRaven on the mission's progress.

Despite a few glitches (one helicopter was damaged and ultimately destroyed by the SEAL team), the mission was a success, bin Laden was killed, and several computers and documents (containing valuable intelligence on al-Qaeda) were retrieved.

Among other crises facing Obama in his first term was the so-called "birther" issue raised by Donald Trump. Writes Obama: "The Tea Party summer had migrated from the fringe of GOP politics to the center–an emotional almost visceral, reaction to my presidency, distinct from any difference in policy or ideology. It was as if my presence in the White House had triggered a deep-rooted panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted.

"Which is exactly what Donald Trump understood when he started peddling the assertion that I had not been born in the United States and was thus an illegitimate president. . . . "

(At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington), Trump said, "Our current president came out of nowhere . . . The people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don't know who he was. It's crazy."

At first, Obama paid no attention. But Trump wouldn't let go. On the Today show he said he'd sent investigators to Hawaii to look into Obama's birth certificate. "I have people that have been studying it, and they cannot believe what they're finding."

Finally, Obama sent an aid to Hawaii to obtain a copy of his birth certificate, the proof of which silenced Trump. Later, when Obama was invited to speak at a dinner in Washington, in which Trump was expected to be a guest, Obama accepted. Working from prepared remarks, he turned to Trump and said, "Now, I know that he's taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put forth this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter–like, Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? After the audience broke into laughter, I continued in this vein, noting his credentials and breadth of experience as host of Celebrity Apprentice and congratulating him for how he'd handled the fact that at the steakhouse, the men's cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. . . . These are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled. Well handled."

Continues Obama: "The audience howled as Trump sat in silence, cracking a tepid smile. I couldn't begin to guess what went through his mind during the few minutes I spent publicly ribbing him. What I knew was that he was a spectacle and in the United States of American in 2011, that was a form of power. Trump trafficked in currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day. . . ."

I look forward to Obama's next book, about his second term as president.

- END -
Passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment
Posted - Jan 02, 2021
Below are two articles concerning the 1920 passage of the nineteenth amendment (a.k.a. the Susan B. Anthony Amendment), which granted women the right to vote. The first article is my book review of "The Woman Who Dared to Vote: The Trial of Susan B. Anthony". The second article is comprised of excerpts from "19th Amendment: The six-week 'brawl' that won women the right to vote" by Elaine Weiss, correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.


Susan B. Anthony was hardly the shy and retiring type. While demure and reticent on the outside, inside burned the fire of a dedicated social reformer. Much of "The Woman Who Dared to Vote: The Trial of Susan B. Anthony" is devoted to two court cases: "United States v. Susan B. Anthony" and the Supreme Court case, "Minor v. Happersett". The remainder of the book deals with Anthony's close working relationship with fellow suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Born into a Quaker family committed to social equality, Susan B. Anthony was at an early age involved with various social movements: at age 17 she was collecting anti-slavery petitions. Having moved from her native state of Massachusetts to Rochester, New York–presumably to be closer to the reform movements–she became the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

In 1851 she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton on a street corner in Seneca Falls. Though a small village in the mid-19th century, Seneca Falls, New York, was at the center of several reform movements, notably the abolition of slavery, women's rights, and temperance. It was probably Anthony and Stanton's temperance activities that led to their meeting. They were destined to become life-long friends and a formidable pair in the quest for woman's suffrage. Stanton was older, better educated and more articulate than Anthony. Indeed, in the years ahead, when the pair would travel the nation on speaking tours, it was Stanton's name that drew in the crowds. However, Anthony would find her voice in a trial that would electrify the nation, and make hers the face of the suffrage movement as it entered the 20th century.

It was in Seneca Falls, in 1848, that a two-day conference of about 50 women’s rights advocates met and drafted what would become known as the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled roughly after the Declaration of Independence. Among the nineteen resolutions was a proposal to repeal all laws in “conflict, in any way with the true and substantial happiness of woman.” Another proclaimed “that woman is man’s equal—was intended to be so by the Creator.” The basic thrust of all the resolutions was that women should be treated as equal to men in every public endeavor, including the right to vote.
When the Declaration of Sentiments was presented for a vote on the second day of the convention, the right-to-vote resolution (which had been nominated by Elizabeth Cady Stanton) was the most controversial. While the Declaration was approved by acclamation, the suffrage resolution won by a bare majority. Nonetheless, the die had been cast: the Seneca Falls Convention has been forever remembered as the event that launched the women’s suffrage movement.

The turning point that shifted Anthony and Stanton's focus from temperance to woman suffrage, occurred sometime between 1852 and 1854. The pair had been vigorously lobbying for a bill in the New York state legislature that would outlaw the manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages within the state. Stanton complained loudly about their frustration in petitioning male legislators. "Let woman never again be guilty of the folly of asking wine and beer-drinkers to put down the liquor traffic."

Later, at the Women's New York State Temperance Society, it was Anthony's turn to speak out. "Woman must carry these temperance principles into politics," she said "If we cannot vote we can influence voters. If man assumes to vote for us, it is time we instruct him how we want voting done."

Indeed, gaining the right to vote was the next logical step. But how? It was Anthony who decided to test the law, by going to the polls on election day and voting and, after being turned away, to file suit in federal court to challenge the law that prevented women from voting. The legal basis for the challenge would be the recently adopted Fourteenth Amendment, part of which reads: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

The problem for Anthony, ironically, was that when she showed up to vote, no one tried to stop her. In the 1872 election, she voted and soon after was arrested and convicted in a widely publicized trial. During the trial, the judge made the egregious blunder of directing the jury to deliver a guilty verdict. He then asked Anthony if she had anything to say. Up to this point she had been quiet. Now she couldn't be silenced. According to historian Ann D. Gordon, "she responded with the most famous speech in the history of the agitation for woman suffrage. Repeatedly ignoring the judge's order to stop talking and sit down, she protested what she called 'this high-handed outrage upon my citizen's rights,' and adding, 'you have trampled upon every foot, every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored.'"

When the judge sentenced Anthony to pay a $100 fine, she responded, "I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty." If the judge had ordered her to be jailed until she paid the fine, Anthony could have appealed her case to the Supreme Court. Instead the judge announced he would order her to be taken into custody, thus closing off that legal avenue.

While the whole sad episode did not go as hoped, the trial did draw the attention of newspapers across the country, making Susan B. Anthony a national figure, while moving the suffragette movement from being a mere curiosity, to a respected national movement that attracted support from thousands of citizens who otherwise knew nothing about what was going on in upstate New York.

The Supreme Court decision they had hoped for came soon after, in 1875. The case was "Minor v. Happersett". However, that court case did not go as hoped for either. The chief justice, who gave the opinion, ruled that "the Constitution of the United States does not consider the right of suffrage upon anyone . . . and in this case specifically a female citizen (Virginia Minor) of the state of Missouri, a right to vote even when a state law granted rights to vote to a certain class of citizens. . . ."

The next logical step was to push for an amendment that specifically granted women the right to vote. In 1878, Anthony and Stanton arranged for Congress to be presented with an amendment giving women the right to vote. The bill was introduced by a Republican Senator named Aaron Sargent of California. Despite repeated efforts, the bill failed to muster the necessary votes needed to pass.

In the early part of the 20th century, with the progressive era in full swing, Anthony and Stanton met with various presidents in an effort to get the amendment passed in congress, but time was running out. By now both women were in their 80s, and not in the best of health. Neither would live to see passage of the amendment. In 1902, Stanton died. Four years later, in 1906, Anthony died. It wasn't until Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, that a president gave the amendment the push it needed to get passed in both houses of congress. With the slimmest of margins (2 votes), the Senate officially passed the bill in the late spring of 1920. In early summer. Wilson signed the bill and sent it off to the states for ratification.


On a midsummer night in 1920, three women rushed to Nashville, Tennessee, on steam-powered trains, converging on the city from different directions. These women were on a mission, called to command their separate forces in what would be one of the pivotal political battles in American history. It was a battle for the soul of American democracy, an epic confrontation to decide: Should American women have the right to vote?

In that summer of 1920 one last state was needed to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – giving all women, in every state, the right to vote in every election: 35 states had ratified, but 36 – or three-fourths of the 48 states in the Union at the time – were required for full ratification.

Tennessee could be the 36th state. If the Tennessee legislature approved the amendment, it would become the law of the land, just in time for the fall 1920 presidential election. If the amendment failed in Tennessee, it could be delayed indefinitely, and perhaps not be enacted anytime in the foreseeable future.

The fight for woman suffrage is one of the defining civil rights struggles in our nation’s history – one that cuts to the heart of what democracy means: Who gets to participate in government? Who has a voice? When we say “We the People” do we really mean everyone? Of course, we are asking those same questions today, as voting rights, citizenship rights, and women’s rights are still burning issues.

Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA ), the preeminent suffrage organization in the nation, was traveling from NAWSA headquarters in New York City to direct the ratification campaign. Catt – a master strategist, brilliant orator, and protégé of Susan B. Anthony – knew this could shape up to be the ultimate battle for her cause, and she would face her greatest challenge.

Sue Shelton White, chairwoman of the Tennessee chapter of the National Woman’s Party (NWP ), the more radical wing of the suffrage movement, arrived fresh from the NWP’s latest picketing demonstration. A lieutenant to NWP founder Alice Paul, White emerged from the third generation of suffragists, the younger women who’d lost patience with the slow progress of the movement. They were tired of asking politely for their rights and were willing to be confrontational, disruptive – even go to prison – for The Cause. White was dispatched to Nashville to manage the NWP’s own campaign to convince the legislature to ratify, working toward the same goal of, but not in concert with, Catt’s NAWSA suffragists.

Rounding out the trio was Josephine Pearson, president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. A college teacher and dean, Pearson came to Nashville to defend her home state against the “feminist peril” and the “scourge of suffrage” that the 19th Amendment threatened to unleash. She and her sister “antis” swore to maintain their feminine dignity, but fight viciously, to protect Southern women from the dirty world of politics, and especially make certain that Black women would not be allowed the right to vote.

The suffragists understood that Tennessee was a terrible place for a definitive confrontation over the 19th Amendment. Almost all the other states of the former Confederacy had already rejected the amendment, and more were poised to do so, all using the same rationales of opposition. (Even Southern border states like Maryland and Delaware had refused to ratify.) The 19th Amendment promised the vote to all eligible female citizens, including Black women, and these states balked at the federal government “meddling” in state affairs, mandating who should be allowed to vote.

Tennessee was the last best hope for suffragists to get the 36th state to ratify before the pivotal fall presidential election, when the policy direction of the nation would be determined for the foreseeable future; women wanted to have a voice in those decisions. They’d proved their patriotism and citizenship during the recent Great War (a.k.a. World War I) by voluntarily taking on roles never before asked of American women: They’d worked in mines and munition factories, as streetcar conductors, truck drivers, and pilots, as farmerettes and lumberjills, as well as doctors and nurses overseas.

Twenty-six nations had already extended voting rights to women, including Great Britain and, more embarrassingly, Russia and the recently defeated enemy, Germany. Suffragists used this to appeal to not only Congress’ sense of justice, but also sense of guilt, and even wounded national pride. If America had just fought a war “to make the world safe for democracy,” how could it deny half of its citizens a voice in that democracy?

Only after the war, in June 1919, did Congress finally pass the woman suffrage amendment, after 40 years of stalling – a biblical span of debate, deceit, and delay. The amendment had been introduced in 1878, but was voted down, in committee or on the floor of the House or Senate, 28 times.

When the Senate finally passed the amendment by a margin of only two votes, it went to the states for ratification in an off year for many state legislatures – when they were not in regular session – making the process far more difficult. Suffragists had to convince 30 governors to call their legislatures back into special session to act on the amendment, and many balked at the cost, both financial and political.

The governor of Tennessee was among these reluctant politicians; he was running for reelection in a tight primary race and didn’t want his campaign complicated by a woman suffrage showdown. It would require a U.S. Supreme Court decision, arm twisting by the White House, and strenuous effort by the suffragists to force Gov. Albert Roberts to call the legislature back to Nashville. He finally, reluctantly, did, but even so, Tennessee was not a promising site for ratification. The state suffrage association was energetic but fractured by regional and personal animosities, the governor unpopular, the legislature notoriously susceptible to bribery and special interest pressure.

As Carrie Chapman Catt made her way to Nashville, she confessed to a suffrage colleague: “I do not believe there is a ghost of a chance of ratification in Tennessee.” But she also knew there was no choice but to try.

Josephine Pearson, however, was excited as she made her journey to the state capital. Her “anti” colleagues across the state and around the nation were rallying to her side, promising to feverishly fight to prevent what they warned would be “the moral collapse of the nation” should ratification succeed.

Such hyperbole was nothing new: Suffragists had always been considered dangerous, a threat to the natural (meaning male-constructed) order of the world. Over the decades, suffragists endured contempt and ridicule in their communities, their churches, their clubs, the press – and often within their own families. Suffragists were physically attacked by mobs of angry men and boys while police looked the other way. They’d been roughly arrested; been held in fetid, cold, vermin-infested cells; been shackled to the wall; and endured abuse and even torture in jail. When they went on hunger strikes, they were force-fed, tubes rammed up their noses.

All the old tropes about subversive and dangerous suffragists would be trotted out in Nashville and given an additional spin: These women agitators were a threat to Christianity, to the American family, and to the foundations of Southern white supremacy.

With the arrival of the three campaign generals the battle was joined in Nashville, and all the forces – for and against the federal amendment – gathered in the city for a giant six-week brawl. Suffragists from across the state and around the nation flooded into the capital, joined by political party operatives, lobbyists, journalists, and beleaguered legislators.

Republican Warren G. Harding and his vice presidential running mate, Calvin Coolidge, and their Democratic rivals, James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were all carefully calibrating their level of support for Tennessee’s ratification with the calculation of whether it would help or hurt their White House chances and their party.

To make its case more alluring to Tennessee legislators, the liquor lobby sponsored a hospitality suite – really a speak-easy – on the eighth floor of The Hermitage Hotel (where Catt, White, and Pearson were staying), which came to be known as the Jack Daniels Suite, in honor of Tennessee’s favorite spirit. There, legislators were plied with free booze, day and night, and treated to a lesson on why they should vote against ratification.

In the first weeks of the ratification campaign, stalwart native Tennessee suffragists took up the front-line positions in persuading their representatives to support the amendment, chasing them with pledge cards to commit to passage. “I’m with you women ’til the cows come home,” insisted one Tennessee delegate on his card. His, along with many similar pledges, would dissolve in the heat of the Nashville battle.

While Catt’s NAWSA suffragists were traipsing through the hills and hollers of the state, finding their delegates to pledge, White’s Woman’s Party team of veteran field organizers was doing the same. Catt toured the state herself, rallying her troops, conferring with political leaders, compiling a list of which legislators were known to take bribes – it was a long list. Once back in Nashville, she fired off telegrams to the presidential candidates, the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties, prominent U.S. senators, and President Wilson, urging them all to exert whatever pressure they could on Tennessee.

Pearson’s cadre of Tennessee antis was bolstered by the arrival of regional and national anti-suffrage luminaries from New York, Washington, Boston, and many Southern cities. They set up a lavish headquarters in the Hermitage, complete with a “museum” of artifacts and documents they hoped could convince legislators and the public that suffragists were not just wrong, but evil.

One prominent Nashville suffrage leader who was not invited to join the lobbying efforts was Juno Frankie Pierce. As an experienced and respected activist in Nashville’s African American community, she’d organized Black women to take up the suffrage cause, and she had forged a rare cooperative arrangement with white Nashville suffragists to work toward common policy goals. At a time when many suffrage organizations, not only in the South, were racially segregated, Pierce had addressed a recent meeting of the white suffragists, emphasizing the potential strength of Black women voters

“What will the Negro woman do with the vote?” Pierce asked her white allies. “We are interested in the same moral uplift of the community in which we live as you are,” she explained, asking their support for the legislative priorities of the Black community.

It was a taboo-shattering moment of Tennessee women working across the color line to achieve political goals, but even the persuasive Pierce would not be invited to lobby her state’s completely white and male legislature.


When the governor finally convened the legislature into special session and the delegates poured into Nashville, both “suffs” and “antis” were there to meet them at Union Station, armed with floral badges of affiliation – yellow roses for ratification supporters, red roses for those opposed – poised to be pinned on willing lapels. From then on, the Tennessee campaign would be known as the War of the Roses.

The confrontation was intense, and wild. There were spies roaming the hallways, bribes under the table, and maneuvers in the chambers. Nashville was awash with conspiracies and kidnappings and even death threats, compromising setups, fake telegrams calling legislators home to false emergencies. The antis weaponized racial fears and waved the Confederate flag as their symbol of defiance. Commentators called it “suffrage Armageddon.”

The suffragists were betrayed by the speaker of the House, the publisher of one of Nashville’s major daily newspapers, as well as one of the presidential candidates, but also found some unlikely champions, including the Tennessee governor. The pledges to ratify mysteriously dissolved as the pressure on legislators ratcheted up, and on the eve of the final vote the tally showed ratification falling short.

What happened the next morning is one of the great tales of American history. The outcome of the ratification battle came down to a single vote.

Harry Thomas Burn, age 24, a freshman delegate from the tiny eastern town of Niota, had worn a red rose in his lapel and voted with the anti-suffragists on all previous motions. He personally believed women should have the right to vote, but he was up for reelection in the fall, and his constituents opposed the amendment. It seemed safer to just go with the flow of those voting against ratification.

But on the morning of the final tally, he received a letter from his mother, Phoebe (Febb) Burn, a staunch suffragist, who conveyed the usual news about Niota – updates on the family and even a shopping list for Harry. But she also expressed her disappointment that Harry was not mentioned in the newspapers as favoring ratification. “Be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt ... with ratification,” she admonished him.

Burn tucked the letter into his jacket pocket, next to his heart, as he sat through the final debates and roll calls in the House chamber on the morning of Aug. 18. When his name was called for the final vote on ratification, the tally was tied. He could duck no longer.

Burn shocked the chamber by voting aye for ratification. The antis accused him of taking a bribe to change his vote. He was unapologetic. “I believe in full suffrage as a right,” Burn told his colleagues. “And I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

The 19th Amendment entered the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920. It was the largest expansion of the electorate in American history. But the amendment still faced resistance, violent reaction, and Supreme Court challenges. And, as we know, the promise of the 19th Amendment was immediately subverted by Jim Crow laws in the Southern states, including Tennessee, impeding the right to vote for many Black women through discriminatory poll taxes, outrageous literacy tests, intimidation, and violence. They were the same tactics used to historically deny the vote to Black men. Congress never used its powers of enforcement – stated clearly in the second section of the amendment – to protect the vote for Black women. And because Native Americans and Asian Americans were not considered citizens in 1920, the 19th Amendment did not apply to the women of those communities until decades later.

(Note: it was not until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, that Black, Native and Asian American women were granted the right to vote. That said, to this day the struggle for Black women's right to vote goes on in the Deep South.)

While the suffrage movement began with the tireless work of two women, the 19th Amendment has been forever known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. Indeed, in 1979, it was her face that was chosen to grace the silver dollar.

- END -
book review: "First Principles, What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How that Shaped Our Country"
Posted - Dec 24, 2020
The author and historian (Thomas E.Ricks) says he researched and wrote his book in the wake of Donald Trump's election as president, which he found disturbing. To better understand how we got here, he began researching the Founding Fathers and their efforts to avoid the inevitable pitfalls that sunk many a republic. This book is an analysis of what he learned.

Most of us have heard how the Founding Fathers were influenced by the Enlightenment, but Ricks discovered the Ancient Greeks and Romans played a significant role as well. That's the premise of "First Principles, What America's Founders learned from the Greeks and Romans and How that Shaped Our Country." Ricks makes a convincing case in a relatively short 297 pages. The book reads incredibly well; indeed, Ricks manages to keep it simple and far from dry, writing about a vast and complex subject.

While creating a new nation, the Founding Fathers looked to the ancient Greeks and Romans for inspiration; particularly James Madison, who studied the Greek republics while gathering information for the Constitutional Convention in 1787; and George Washington, who modeled his leadership qualities after a number of Roman generals; in particular Fabius, and Cincinnatus, but not, alas, Julius Caesar (politically ambitious).

Ricks also underscores the point that Washington, while a brilliant military strategist and leader, was the least educated of the Founders (a number of his influential state papers were ghost-written by others). A good portion of the book deals with Washington as a military leader during the French and Indian Wars and, of course, during the war for independence that followed, and his eight years as our nation's first president; and with James Madison in his spirited quest to form a more perfect union.

All of the Founders were obsessed with the Greek and Roman ideals of public virtue. In the Ancient World "public virtue" equated to putting the public welfare ahead of personal ambition. What did the Founders read from the ancient world? "The Iliad", Plutarch's "Lives of Ancient Greeks and Romans", the philosophy and literature of Xenophom, Epicurius, Aristotle, and the speeches and commentaries of Cato and Cicero.

Of particular concern to Madison, was the formation of political factions, which was the root cause of the breakup of the Greek and Roman republics. As a possible solution, Madison looked to several Enlightenment philosophers, particularly to a French philosopher named Charles Montesquieu, who, the author says, constituted a bridge between the Enlightenment and the Classical World. His masterpiece, "The Spirit of the Laws" while largely rejected in France due to the popularity of the monarch, proved highly influential among the Founders. The book was essentially a meditation on how to inject ancient wisdom into modern governance. While the author builds a strong case for Montesquieu's influence on Madison, he largely ignores Scottish philosopher David Hume, who also wrote a significant and influential essay on how to create a republic that effectively counteracted factions. Indeed, historian Douglass Adair, makes a strong case for Hume's influence on Madison (see "Fame and the Founding Fathers", by Douglass Adair). Surprisingly, while Ricks writes extensively about Montesquieu, he pretty much ignores Hume's influence.

Also, while the author admires Madison and Washington, he does not think highly of John Adams ("over-rated"), or Thomas Jefferson ("I found his avoidance of reality disturbing" ), or Alexander Hamilton (too ambitious and something of a conniver).

Despite being mostly about the influence of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the author also delves deeply into the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, which arrived on American shores in the form of books by David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Hutchison and others, as well as a host of scholars, tutors, and teachers who emigrated to America in the mid-eighteenth century. Among them was William Small, who tutored Thomas Jefferson while a student at William and Mary; Donald Robinson, who tutored James Madison while a teen; and Hugh Knox, who, while teaching in the Caribbean, was the first to recognize Alexander Hamilton's literary gifts, and arranged what amounted to a scholarship for Hamilton's college education in the American colonies; and John Witherspoon, who as a professor at the College of New Jersey at Princeton, taught James Madison on the subject of political government. Witherspoon would go to partake in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. His signature appears on the U.S. Constitution.

While Ricks lauds the Founders for creating an enduring republic, he laments that, being such an incredibly intellectually-gifted and well-read group, the Founders failed to find a solution to slavery, which in our day lives on in the form of white supremacy.

At the close of the book, the author offers ten steps "that I think might help us more on the course intended by the Revolutionary generation to help us move beyond where we are stuck and instead toward what we ought to be."

Concludes Ricks: Our government remains an experiment that requires our serious and sustained attention to thrive."

- END -
Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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