‘Huck Finn’ Established Enduring Hallmarks of Our National Sense of Humor

A first American edition, first issue of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with a tipped-in Twain signature, sold for $11,875 at an April 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Here’s a good literary rule of thumb. Any book that someone has seen fit to ban has got to be worth reading. And when a book has been banned for so long and so often and for so many reasons – as has The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – that’s as compellingly an endorsement as you can hope for.

If anything, Huckleberry Finn has become even more disturbing since its first appearance in 1885. It’s a book that, even when you reread it, is never what you expect – by turns raw, sweet, funny, deeply principled and deliberately shocking.

Twain

It has been a lightning rod for the squeamish and for naysayers and prigs of every stripe. Huck Finn was a victim of political correctness long before there was such an imprecise, overused and contentious term. The indictment is by now tiresomely familiar and of some of the charges, at least, plainly guilty. Yes, it uses the “n” word – 215 times to be accurate. People used the word back then and still do today. However, who is allowed to seems to be fungible and the rules enforced for maximum social effect. And Huck – not to mention most of the book’s other characters, black and white – does engage in what we would call racist thinking.

But Huck is not Mark Twain, remember, and early on we discover he has a lot to learn. The story of Huckleberry Finn is, in part, the story of Huck’s education and he is taught by none other than Jim, the runaway slave who is in fact the book’s wisest and most humane character. Set at a time when America was still riven and corrupted by slavery, Huckleberry Finn is a depiction of racism at its most virulent, but it is itself among the most anti-racist novels ever written.

The charge of racism is so specious that it invites us to wonder if some other agenda isn’t at work in the minds of those who raise it. And the same is true of those 19th century moralists like librarians, town fathers and custodians of the public weal who originally objected on grounds of vulgarity and sacrilegiousness. What really upsets people about Huck Finn is that it is so deeply skeptical – subversive even – of received wisdom and official pieties of every sort. It breaks all the rules and does so from its first sentence: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”

There had never been a sentence like that in American literature before. It is vulgar, in the way that everyday speech is vulgar, and it introduces us not to the familiar narrator of 19th-century fiction, with measured cadences and worldly wisdom, but to a 14-year-old boy, a wiseass who takes nothing on faith, especially not what he’s been told by his elders. It’s a voice so authentically American that it’s startling that we never heard it in books until then. In an almost embarrassing way, it reveals as phony so much written until then.

Ernest Hemingway famously said of Huckleberry Finn that all American literature comes from it and that “there was nothing before” – which is a stretch, but not by much. What is certainly true is that all American comedy comes from Huck Finn and it established in an instant the two enduring hallmarks of our national sense of humor: a deadpan delivery and a take-no-prisoners attitude. We get taken on a tour down Twain’s beloved Mississippi through an America in the process of becoming a country. Filled with an incomparable gallery of rogues, swindlers and hypocrites, it’s Twain’s take on this nascent country … withering, but exact.

I suspect nothing would please Twain more – or surprise him less – to learn that his book still has the power to both amuse and make us wince … things that are in short supply as we hurry from one outrage to another by people that will probably always be angry, about something.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

How We Record History Has Evolved Over the Ages

A 1935 copy of The History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (Nonesuch Press) sold for $1,125 at an October 2013 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

We often fail to remember that history (itself) has a history. From the earliest times, all societies told stories from their past, usually imaginative tales involving the acts of heroes or various gods. Later, civilizations kept records inscribed on clay tablets or the walls of caves. However, ancient societies made no attempt at verification of records, and often failed to differentiate between reality and mythical events and legends.

This changed in the 5th century B.C. when historians like Herodotus and Thucydides explored the past by the interpretation of evidence, despite still including a mixture of myth (“history” means “inquiry” in Greek). Still, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War satisfies most criteria of modern historical study. It was based on interviews with eyewitnesses and attributed actual events to individuals rather than the intervention of gods.

Thus, Thucydides managed to create the most durable form of history: the detailed narrative of war, political conflict, diplomacy and decision-making. Then, the subsequent rise of Rome to dominance of the Mediterranean encouraged other historians like Polybius (Hellenic) and Livy (Roman) to develop narratives to capture a “big picture” that made sense of events on a longer time frame. Although restricted to just the Roman world, it was the beginning of a universal history to describe progress from origin to present, with a goal of giving the past a purpose.

In addition to making sense of events through narratives, there was a tradition growing to examine the behavior of heroes and villains for future moral lessons. We still attempt this today with a steady stream of studies of Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi, as well as Stalin, Hitler and Mao.

But there was a big hiccup with the rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire era, which fundamentally changed the concept of history in Europe. Historical events started to be viewed as “divine providence” or the working of God’s will. Skeptical inquiry was usually neglected and miracles routinely accepted without question. Thankfully, the Muslim world was more sophisticated in medieval times and they rejected accounts of events that could not be verified.

However, neither Christians nor Muslims produced anything close to the chronicle of Chinese history published under the Song Dynasty in 1085. It recorded history spanning almost 1,400 years and filled 294 volumes. (I have no idea how accurate it is!)

By the 20th century, the subject matter of history – which had always focused on kings, queens, prime ministers, presidents and generals – increasingly expanded to embrace common people, whose role in historical events became more accessible. But most world history was written as the story of the triumph of Western civilization, until the second half when the notion of a single grand narrative simply collapsed. Instead, the post-colonial, modern world demanded the study of blacks and women’s histories, in addition to Asians, Africans and American Indians.

Now we are in another new place where it is increasingly difficult to know where to find reliable accounts of real events and a flood of “fake news” is competing for widespread acceptance. Maybe Henry Ford was right after all when he declared that “History is bunk!”

Personally, I don’t mind and still enjoy frequent trips to the past … regardless of factual flaws.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Wall Street was Booming Just Months Before the Great Depression

Vintage photograph shows Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth, Vt., shortly after learning of President Warren G. Harding’s death.

By Jim O’Neal

After the 1928 election, President-elect Herbert Hoover met with incumbent Calvin Coolidge to make a special request. There were four months to go until inauguration and Hoover planned to use six weeks of that time to tour Latin America. He asked the president to place a battleship at his disposal since he wanted to include Mrs. Hoover, who spoke fluent Spanish.

Initially, Coolidge suggested a cruiser “since it does not cost so much,” but finally relented and gave Hoover the battleship USS Maryland one way and then the USS Utah to come home from Montevideo, Uruguay. This was classic Calvin Coolidge, always looking for creative ways to avoid federal spending.

Then Coolidge dispatched his final annual message to Congress on Dec. 4. The document revealed the optimism felt by Coolidge and the nation as a whole: “No Congress of the United States, on surveying the State of the Union, has met with a more promising prospect than that which appears at the present time. In the domestic field, there is tranquility and contentment, harmonious relations between management and wage earner, freedom from industrial strife and the highest record of years of prosperity.”

In his budget address, read to Congress the following day, Coolidge said estimated revenues for 1929 were $3.831 billion with expenditures of $3.794 billion. Since the surplus was smaller than hoped for, he would not ask for yet another tax cut.

Calvin Coolidge – who assumed the presidency when Warren Harding died in 1923 – had a simplistic fiscal philosophy: hold the line on spending and if possible reduce it, while at the same time cutting taxes. He believed this would result in greater personal freedom and a more moral population. In 1923, federal expenditures were $3.1 billion and fell to $3.0 billion by 1928. Despite tax cuts, revenues were the same at $3.9 billion and the national debt fell from $22.3 billion to $17.6 billion. The number of federal employees in Washington fell from 70,000 to 65,000.

By 1929, automobiles jammed the roads, spurring a major construction boom. The Ford Model A was enthusiastically greeted in 1927, but the talk of the industry was Walter Chrysler, who came from nowhere to build the third-largest company in the industry. Auto sales zoomed and the Federal Oil Conservation Board announced the country was in danger of running out of petroleum.

The front-page news of early 1929 was Britain’s ailing King George V, whose sons were rushing home to his bedside. But the business pages focused on RCA’s purchase of the Victor Talking Machine Company, following the acquisition of Keith-Albee-Orpheum, which was renamed RKO. The stock of RCA was now selling at a P/E of 26 and there was talk of a 5-for-1 stock split.

Wall Street was booming and dividends were at an all-time high. The Federal Reserve was complaining about the banks using their money to fuel speculation, but the only response was from the small Dallas Reserve, which raised their discount rate to 5 percent (yawn). A few months later, Wall Street crashed and the entire country spiraled down into the Great Depression, which would last the next 10-plus years.

Welcome to Washington, D.C., President Hoover. It’s all yours!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

For Anthony and Women’s Rights, Failure was Impossible

An 1873 letter by Susan B. Anthony, written one month after her trial for voting illegally, realized $9,375 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Nov. 5, 1872, Susan B. Anthony wrote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “Well, I have been & gone & done it!! – positively voted the Republican ticket – strait [sic] – this a.m. at 7 o’clock.”

Anthony had cast her ballot at a barbershop in Rochester, N.Y. She was one of 6,431,149 citizens who voted in the election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley, an election Grant won decisively by more than 760,000 votes. Three weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, Anthony and a handful of other women who voted with her were arrested and indicted for having “knowingly voted without having a lawful right to vote.”

The verdict at her trial was a forgone conclusion. The judge refused to let her take the witness stand and then instructed the all-male jury to find her guilty without any deliberation. Anthony succeeded in being heard, however, when the judge asked if she “had anything to say why sentence shall not be pronounced?” She quickly replied,

“Yes, your honor, I have many things to say, for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled underfoot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights are all alike ignored. Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject … doomed to political subjection.”

Susan B. Anthony

She then refused to pay the $100 fine the judge ordered, but he refused to imprison her, thereby preventing her from appealing to a higher court. Undeterred, Anthony took her case to the public and had thousands of copies of the trial proceedings printed and widely distributed.

Susan B. Anthony would find other ways to relentlessly press the cause of women’s suffrage. Brought up as a Quaker and active as an early supporter of temperance, she soon realized that until women could vote, politicians would not pay any attention to them. For more than 50 years, she urged lawmakers to enfranchise the other half of America’s citizens. She attended her first women’s rights convention in Syracuse, in 1852, and with Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the American Equal Rights Association in 1866. The two women published a feisty newspaper, The Revolution, whose masthead proclaimed “Men their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.”

She appeared before every U.S. Congress between 1869 and 1906 to ask them to pass a Suffrage amendment. She was prepared as any modern-day lobbyist – her copy of the seating chart for all members of Congress has survived. Her speech to a Senate Committee in 1904 reflected her frustration: “I never come here, and this is the seventeenth Congress I have attended, but with the feeling of injustice which ought not to be borne, because the women, one-half the people, are not able to get a hearing from the Representatives and Senators of the United States.”

Her combative tone did not mellow with age. When President Theodore Roosevelt sent congratulations in 1906 for her 86th birthday celebration, her response was indignant: “I wish the men would do something besides extend congratulations … I would rather have him say a word to Congress for the cause than to praise me endlessly.”

She ended that evening’s gathering, her final public appearance, with a ringing prophecy: “There have been others also just as true and devoted to the cause … but with such women consecrating their lives, failure is impossible!”

Less than a month later, on March 13, 1906, she died at her home in Rochester, N.Y. The rights for which she had worked so tirelessly were finally won when the Nineteenth Amendment, the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” passed on June 4, 1919, as women stood on the steps of the Capitol to cheer. The vote was close, only one more than the required two-thirds. To enable the passage, two Congressmen had come from hospitals to vote aye; a third left his suffragist wife’s deathbed to cast a vote, then returned for her funeral. When the State of Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify, the amendment was officially adopted on Aug. 18, 1920 – nearly half a century after Susan B. Anthony had illegally voted for Ulysses S. Grant.

A life. A cause. Finally accomplished.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

What Nature Separated, Explorers Brought Together

A letter Albert Einstein sent to Charles Hapgood in November 1954 sold for $3,125 at an April 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

To my knowledge, the only trained geologist I have met is Simon Winchester. He is now a successful journalist and author. Most of the people I know tend to look up or back (in history) as opposed to downward. I assume most geologists are average, normal people, except when I read about 20th century geology and the difficulties they had in reaching anything close to a consensus about Earth.

As early as 1912, a German – Alfred Wegener – developed the theory that the continents had come together in a single landmass before it drifted apart (he called it Pangaea). However, virtually everyone else argued that continents moved up and down, but definitely not “sideways.” They developed elaborate theories to explain all the evidence.

Just before he died in 1955, Albert Einstein enthusiastically endorsed a theory by geologist Charles Hapgood, who wrote the book “Earth’s Shifting Crust: A Key to Some Basic Problems of Earth Science.” Hapgood systematically debunked the theory of continental drift and dismissed anyone who believed it as “gullible.” When it was finally realized that the whole crust of the Earth was in motion – and not just the continents – it took a while to settle on a new name.

It wasn’t until 1968, when the Journal of Geophysical Research published an article by three American seismologists, that the new science was dubbed plate tectonics. Still, as late as 1980, one in eight geologists didn’t believe in plate-tectonic theory. It is not clear if there are any continental drift-deniers left, but we know for sure that the pre-1492 American and Eurasian ecosystems existed in complete isolation for thousands of years. The arrival of the first Europeans in North and Central America reconnected them and started what was to become known as the great Columbian Exchange.

Lives and economies that had evolved gradually over centuries were suddenly transformed by the influx of new crops, animals, technology and pathogens. Many of the effects were unforeseen and generally misunderstood by both American Indians and Europeans; but once the first landing occurred, massive changes were inexorably under way. One small example is that 60 percent of all crops grown in the world today originated in the Americas. A more immediate and devastating impact was the introduction of new diseases into the Americas that wiped out hundreds of thousands of Indians who had no biological defenses against small pox, measles, malaria, chickenpox and yellow fever.

The dramatic and irrevocable changes brought about on both sides of the Atlantic by the Columbian Exchange continued to shape lives for centuries, just as the movement of the Earth’s crust shapes our lives today by earthquakes, ocean movements and other ecological events.

We live in and on things that will continue to change as our televisions remind us every day. The longer-term changes are still being debated and are now politicized to the point where prudent policies are paralyzed. It must be something in our DNA.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

When Britain Needed Help to Fight the Nazis, FDR Came Through

A Franklin D. Roosevelt inscribed photograph signed, circa 1930s, sold for $1,625 at an October 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the idea at a press conference on Dec. 17, 1940, in typical homey, easily comprehended language:

“Suppose my neighbor’s home catches on fire and I have a length of garden hose 400 or 500 feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up to his hydrant, I may be able to help him put out the fire. Now what do I do? I don’t say to him, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15, you have to pay me $15 for it.’ No! What is the transition that goes on? I don’t want $15 – I want my garden hose back after the fire is out.”

The neighbor on fire was England, facing the full ferocity of the Nazi blitz. England was the only major European power still resisting (barely) the German juggernaut. The formal cry for help, a desperate letter from Winston Churchill to FDR, had been received eight days earlier on Dec. 9 when a navy seaplane had touched down next to the USS Tuscaloosa off of Florida’s southern coast. The president was on board the heavy cruiser recuperating from the rigors on his November reelection campaign when the seaplane crew delivered the letter.

The Prime Minister had written, “The moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies” … pointing out that the Exchequer was down to its last $2 billion – with $5 billion in orders from American munitions factories outstanding. Roosevelt knew the answer was to find some way around the Neutrality Acts, an isolationist ploy that stipulated that any war belligerents had to pay cash for weapons – and loans were prohibited to any nation that had not repaid debts from WWI.

Harry Hopkins – FDR’s man for all seasons – wrote that his boss mulled it over for two days, then one evening came up with the whole program! The “whole program” quickly became House Resolution 1776, better known as “Lend-Lease.” It granted the president the authority to lend tanks, planes, ships and other aid not only to England but to “any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Leaders across the political spectrum rallied to support H.R. 1776.

One was Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate just defeated in the 1940 presidential election and a staunch opponent of the United States entering the war in Europe. When the Senate quizzed him about this obvious contradiction, he smiled broadly and said, “I struggled as hard as I could to beat Franklin Roosevelt and didn’t pull any punches. He was elected president. He is my president now … I say a world enslaved to Hitler is worse than war, and worse than death.”

The opposition was organized and very powerful. Colonel Charles Lindbergh had even assured the Senate that Britain was already doomed. Fortunately, Congress had more faith in FDR and passed H.R. 1776 by large margins on March 11, 1941. The bill provided Roosevelt with $7 billion in appropriations – the first of $50 billion to be used by the end of hostilities in 1945.

Churchill famously called Lend-Lease “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ Stated Simply the Reasons for Independence

A 1776 edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold for $56,762 at a June 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, it was thought that most colonists were true patriots who favored full separation from England. It was not true then – 15 percent to 20 percent were still loyal to the Crown (Loyalists) and a like number were still undecided – and it was absolutely unresolved as little as six months earlier.

It was true that there had been skirmishes with British soldiers and a series of complaints diplomatically lodged by colonial leaders, however, the Continental Congress had been silent on the issue of indignation. There was still a sense that Parliament in London could resolve disputes. If anything, the colonies vibrated with unarticulated emotions – poised for someone to bring the scattered opinions into focus.

Clarity finally arrived in Philadelphia on Jan. 10, 1776, when an English corset-maker, who had only been in America a little over a year, published a pamphlet titled “Common Sense.” It was originally titled “Plain Truth” (Benjamin Rush suggested the change) and signed anonymously “By an Englishman.” In stunningly clear and moving prose, Thomas Paine gathered up the random, unspoken thoughts of the average smithy or farmer and crystallized the rebellious demand for independence, giving them the courage to accept a radical idea.

Thomas Paine

He wrote, “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. … ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest … Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor.” History would be made now or never. Paine wrote. “The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected, the whole continent will partake of the misfortune.”

Then came the words from which there would be no turning back: “Every thing that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’TIS TIME TO PART!”

“Common Sense” was an immediate success; 100,000 copies circulated in three months to the 2.5 million white residents in the 13 colonies. For the first time, the notion of independence was on the lips of every yeoman in the colonies and a new idea of separate nationality was in their heads.

Paine was the first man to string together the five words we now cherish: the United States of America.

Unadorned and plain, the American voice of simple declarative sentences, set off by vivid imagery, is the pioneering literary achievement of “Common Sense.” John Adams neatly summed up its importance when he said, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of George Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Sounds right to me.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

While Dewey Focused on Election, Truman Dealt With Soviets

An original copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune’s famously wrong “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” edition from Nov. 3, 1948, sold for $1,493 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1948, Republicans selected New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey (Alice Roosevelt thought he looked like the groom on a wedding cake) to be their presidential candidate. He had lost in 1944 to FDR, but it was the closest anyone had come in four elections. Four years later, Dewey defeated a tough group of competitors that included Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen. In fact, Stassen was so close that Dewey challenged him to a debate just before the Oregon Republican primary.

The May 17 Dewey-Stassen debate was the first audio-recorded debate between presidential candidates in U.S. history. The debate centered primarily on the issue of criminalization of the Communist Party of the United States and was broadcast over the radio to the entire country. About 40 million people tuned in and Dewey was thought to be the winner. The real winner may have been voters, since this set a precedent that is still considered important today.

Dewey finally won the Republican nomination on the third ballot on June 24, 1948.

            Thomas E. Dewey

President Harry S. Truman had little interest in the Republicans or their convention since on the same date, June 24, the Russians decided to make a move in post-war Germany by blockading all rail, highway and water traffic in and out of Berlin. It seemed clear that Joseph Stalin was intent on forcing the Allies to withdraw from the partitioned city. Except for air, the Allied sectors were entirely cut off and nothing could come in or out of this critical German hub. About 2.5 million people were facing starvation and Truman was asked bluntly if American forces would remain in Berlin or pull out. In typical Midwest-style candor, Truman answered, “We stay in Berlin. Period.”

Four days later on June 28, while Dewey tried to rally voters to look beyond the crisis, Truman acted by ordering a full-scale airlift to Berlin. He sent to Germany two squadrons of B-29s, the giant planes associated with dropping the two atomic bombs on Japan. However, these particular planes were not equipped to carry atomic weapons, a small detail the Russians were unaware of.

Truman didn’t bother to consult with either the White House staff or any of his numerous political advisors in making the decision. He and Secretary of State General George C. Marshall were convinced that the future of Western Europe hinged on the Berlin issue and that leaving the Russians alone in Berlin could lead to a resumption of war. The numbers were sobering. The Allies had 6,500 soldiers in the city, while the Russians had 18,000. In addition, those 18,000 were backed up by 300,000 more in Germany’s Eastern Zone.

Politicians and newspapers editorialists thought it would be impossible to supply 2.5 million people with food, clothing and other essentials, especially when winter rolled around. However, by the fourth week of the airlift, American and British transports were roaring in by the hundreds each day. More pilots were being trained in Montana, flying blindfolded through extremely narrow mock routes, similar to Berlin routes. The New York Times even wrote in atypical tones, “We were proud of our Air Force during the war. We are prouder of it today.”

The effort was heroic, but it was not enough. So Truman stepped up and increased the number of planes, and 30,000 Berliners volunteered in the building of a new airfield. Voila! By October, the airlift was succeeding and Truman sent yet another 26 C-54 transports into the rotation. This increase helped guarantee supplies for the winter. Realizing their blockade ploy had failed, Stalin blinked and backed down!

“To do more would have been a direct threat to peace. To have done less would have been an abdication of our American honor and traditions,” said General Lucius Clay, the top U.S. official in occupied Germany. The 277,804 flights delivered more than 2.32 million tons of food and supplies, almost one ton for every man, woman and child in Berlin, the third-largest city in the world, behind Chicago and New York. Truman called off his airlift on May 12, 1949 … the same day Allied Powers approved the establishment of a new German Federated Republic, where the German people would rule themselves with their own government in Bonn.

They are once again the brightest country in all of Europe and dominate the E.U.

Note: I never met General Lucius Clay while he served as chairman and CEO of Continental Can Company from 1950-62 … although I received a short note from his office when I became plant manager of Continental’s South Gate, Calif., flexible packing group in 1962 at age 25. (I was told that was a record, but there is no proof.)

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Victoria Not Exactly the Prudish Queen of History Books

A photo album celebrating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee went to auction in October 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

In an era known for great leaps in innovation and industrialization, Mark Twain opined, “She will witness more things invented than any other monarch that ever lived!”

There is no easy way to quantify this observation and no practical value in affirming or refuting its veracity. One only has the luxury of taking a pragmatic assessment of this historical epoch, compounded by the astonishing longevity of her reign as Queen of England (surpassed by Elizabeth II in October 2016).

Christened Alexandrina Victoria, Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was the first British monarch to be photographed, but what we remember is the figure of a monarch in profile: short and heavy. Accident and tragedy put her on the throne soon after her 18th birthday in 1837 and there she stayed for 63 years and seven months until her death following a series of strokes.

Married in February 1840 to first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Germany), the queen’s power began to erode slowly with an ultimate role reversal. Over the course of their 21-year marriage, Albert became ensconced in the world of governance, while Victoria receded to the domestic realm. Albert was loyal, but he was a diligent misogynist who believed that ruling was a male prerogative.

Queen Victoria was pregnant for a total of 80 months, giving birth to nine children, all attaining adulthood, over a 17-year period. After the ninth child, the royal physicians advised that – at almost 38 years old – this should be the last one. She quickly responded, “Can I have no more fun in bed?” She was a woman who shocked with her candid approach to pregnancy and did nothing to hide her obvious sexual appetite. This is clearly not the prudish queen of history books who lent her name to an entire era known for the repression of emotional and sexual feelings.

A pure iconoclast, she was emotional, demonstrative, sexual and driven. She loved to dance and was fervently opposed to animal cruelty. She gamely survived eight assassination attempts. She was wildly in love with Prince Albert and suffered a bottomless grief at his early death in 1861 – a full 40 years before her own passing. It is commonly believed that after his death, she withdrew from public life, essentially abdicating her responsibilities. Actually, she used the stereotype of her sex to advantage … claiming nervous weakness while ruthlessly micromanaging her political cabinet, often sending them hourly orders.

This apparent dichotomy was fostered, since her historical image was curated by those closest to her. Daughter Beatrice transcribed her mother’s journals. She edited out everything that reflected poorly on her, and then burned the originals in what has been described as “the greatest act of censorship in history.” Yet today, the keepers of the physical details of Victoria’s death prefer they not be published. That the queen lived with a painful prolapsed uterus for decades is a secret that was meticulously concealed.

In a similar manner, her family tried to erase all evidence that she cared deeply for any of the other men in her long life, except for her adored Prince Albert. Victoria’s sanitized, puritanical mythology was a creative act of fiction, intended to illuminate the woman those around her wanted her to be.

Girls just want to have fun.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Labor Secretary Perkins Did Her Part to Make Sure Social Security Endures

A Feb. 27, 1935, memo by President Roosevelt to Francis Perkins regarding Social Security went to auction in December 2008.

By Jim O’Neal

President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt created the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor on Feb. 14, 1903. It was renamed the Department of Commerce in 1913 and various bureaus and agencies specializing in labor were shifted to a new Department of Labor.

Until 1920, women were prohibited from having Cabinet-level positions since they were not allowed to vote. President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke this barrier in 1933 by appointing Francis Perkins as Secretary of Labor. She was instrumental in aligning labor with the New Deal.

The New Deal was a complex integrated plan to provide present relief, future stability and permanent security in the United States. Much of the president’s thinking about security – which would soon come to be called “social security” – rested on a premise that overcompetition in the labor market depressed wages, spread misery rather than income, curtailed the economy and worked special hardship on the elderly.

Roosevelt was determined to find a way to “dispose of surplus workers,” in particular those over the age of 65. The federal government could provide immediate relief to able-bodied workers as the employer of last resort, while returning welfare functions to the states. Unemployment insurance would relieve damage from economic downturns by sustaining workers’ living standards, and removing older workers (permanently) through government paid old-age pensions would create broad economic stability.

The longer-term features of Roosevelt’s grand design were incorporated into a landmark measure whose legacy endured and reshaped the texture of American life: the Social Security Act. No other New Deal measure proved more lastingly consequential or is more emblematic of the very essence of the New Deal. No one was better prepared to thread the needle of the tortuous legislative process than Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins and FDR personally assigned her the task of chairing a Cabinet committee to prepare the legislation for submission to Congress.

Madame Secretary (as she preferred to be called) brought to her task the commonsense practicality of her New England forebearers; compassion of the special milieu from her time at social-work pioneer Jane Addams’ Hull House; and a dose of political expertise gained as a labor lobbyist and industrial commissioner in New York. Perkins had evolved from a romantic Mount Holyoke College graduate, who tried to sell “true love” stories to pulp magazines, into a mature, deadly serious battler for the underprivileged.

She owed her position to a comrade-in-arms relationship with New York Governor Al Smith and FDR in New York reform battles and also the spreading influence of an organized women’s faction in the Democratic Party. She wisely believed that enlightened middle-class reformers could do more for themselves through tough legislation than union organization; and without the distraction of industrial conflict and social disruption.

Meanwhile, the American labor movement, led by the stubborn Samuel Gompers, relied exclusively on protection of labor’s right to organize. Even after his death, his American Federation of Labor (AFL) spurned legislation and continued to bargain piecemeal, union by union, shop by shop … a strategy that collapsed as the depression deepened.

We know how this ended on Jan. 17, 1935, when President Roosevelt unveiled his Social Security program. Today, 61 million people – or one family in four – receive benefits. However, there is no “lockbox” for Social Security and the flow of taxes and benefit payments are co-mingled with all General Obligations; which includes Medicare, military spending, food stamps and foreign aid. Everything is dependent on the federal government’s ability to levy taxes and borrow money to fund the unsustainable debts backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States.”

Some say that when it comes to global sovereign debt, we live in the best house on Bankrupt Street. However, I am willing to bet that FDR’s cherished Social Security program will never be touched. Francis Perkins did a superb job of getting this concept engrained in a special way and she must still be smiling. She liked her work and served for 12 years and one month – almost a record. James “Tama Jim” Wilson holds that distinction, serving as Secretary of Agricultural from 1897 to 1913, the only Cabinet member to serve under four consecutive presidents, counting the one day he served under Woodrow Wilson.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].