America Driven by Courage and the Nerve to Do Whatever It Takes

The Empire State Building, an oil on canvas by Glenn O. Coleman (1887-1932) sold for $40,000 at a March 2017 Heritage auction. Mohawk riveting gangs worked on the skyscraper, and other monumental New York buildings.

By Jim O’Neal

The American Revolutionary War effectively ended on Oct. 19, 1781, at Yorktown, Va. That was the day British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington. However, it took two more years until the Treaty of Paris was signed on Sept. 3, 1783, to formalize the negotiated peace terms.

The peace negotiations were led by Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens and John Adams, who were very clever to exclude American allies France and Spain and strike a deal directly with Great Britain to achieve better terms. Despite this ploy, there were still several areas still in contention. In 1794, now Chief Justice John Jay was finally forced to negotiate an additional agreement (Jay’s Treaty) to resolve a number of lingering issues.

Flash forward to 1926 and we find a Mohawk ironworker from Quebec, Canada, Paul Diabo, facing deportation in Philadelphia after being charged as an illegal alien in violation of the Immigration Act of 1924. The court ruled he had every right to enter the United States (at will) by virtue of the Jay Treaty with the Iroquois Confederacy.

By then, the Kahnawake-Mohawk Indians had gained a well-known reputation as world-class high-steel workers. Ironworking requires a rare combination of strength, intelligence and courage. It involves laying the foundations and building the metal skeletons to support skyscrapers. Workers handle the lifting, fixing and welding of heavy steel beams, often while hundreds of feet up in the air. The Mohawks had demonstrated an exceptional skill that was unmatched.

It all started in 1886 when the fledgling Canadian Pacific Railway needed to span the St. Lawrence River and hired the Dominion Bridge Company to build a cantilevered bridge over the water. One significant issue was it would have to be set on land belonging to the Mohawks, who were willing to give their approval, but only with the proviso that they could work on the project. The company quickly agreed, assuming the Mohawks would be able to do all the menial tasks associated with such a big project. They were subsequently astonished when, instead, they showed great agility and a desire to become higher-paid riveters.

Initially, Dominion trained a dozen volunteers in this difficult, dangerous skill that entailed heating red-hot rivets, tossing them 30 to 40 feet where other co-workers caught them and forced them through steel beams with a hammer or pneumatic drill … while high off the ground up in the infrastructure. Soon, there was a cadre of over 70 highly trained iron and steel riveters and they started working on projects throughout Canada.

The Mohawk riveting gangs continued to proliferate and spread out, by the 1910s arriving in New York. As their numbers and reputations continued to grow, they inevitably worked on all the monumental structures in greater New York: the Empire State Building, George Washington Bridge, Chrysler Building, United Nations Assembly, and Triborough Bridge … among many other less well-known skyscrapers.

By the 1930s, a community of 700 Mohawks were living in a Brooklyn suburb and drinking Canadian beer at the Wigwam bar, with its picture of Jim Thorpe on the wall and the sign “The Greatest Iron Workers in the World Pass Through These Doors.” In addition to frequent trips back and forth to Canada, they traveled all over the United States, even arriving in time to help rivet the majestic Golden Gate Bridge.

Today, the demand for “High Steel” riveting has declined, but as a Dominion Bridge official once observed, “Men who want to do it are rare. And men who can do it are even rarer!”

I suppose the same could be said of the Colonial soldiers who followed General Washington in a seemingly impossible task to win our independence. Courage and the nerve to do whatever it takes.

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].

Franklin Consistently Placed Public Interest Above Personal Desires

Benjamin Franklin regretted having been born too soon and missing knowledge that would be “known 100 years hence.”

By Jim O’Neal

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Thus begins a long-time misattribution to Charles Duell, commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (1898-1901). Researchers have confirmed that the actual source is the June 1899 edition of the humor magazine Punch. In colloquy, a genius asks, “Isn’t there a clerk who can examine patents?” and a boy replies, “Quite unnecessary, sir. Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

One man who definitely didn’t share that view was Benjamin Franklin. Although he was entranced by the discoveries of his day, he regretted having been born too soon. He missed “the happiness of knowing what will be known 100 years hence.” He wrote that by then, there would be “discoveries made of which we have at present no conception.” He was obviously correct about that, having been born very early in the 18th century (1706) and here we are 300 years later still astonished by a continuous flow of remarkable discoveries.

However, for a few of us there is a tinge of regret for being born too late to enjoy his company. A true polymath, Franklin was a pioneering scientist, best-selling author, printer, bon vivant, inventor, political theorist, diplomat, the country’s first postmaster general, and the most prominent celebrity of the 18th century (whew!).

He was also a man of vast contradictions. As a reluctant revolutionary, Franklin desperately wished to preserve the British Empire, and he mourned the break even as he led the fight for American independence. Despite his passion for science, he viewed his groundbreaking experiments as secondary to his civic duties. And although he helped draft both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, in his heart he hoped that the new American government would take a different form. This paradox stems from being the rare individual who consistently placed public interest above personal desires.

He is a delight for historians, since writing was his favorite mode of communication and he saved most of the letters he received… while others did the same with his highly valued correspondence. Then there is the autobiography that covers his first 52 years of public and private life; his remaining 32 years are intertwined with historic events. It is little wonder that his name keeps popping up so often yet today.

If he had a blind spot it was over the issue of race. For a man who saw himself as an Englishman living in America, he had grand thoughts about a glorious future for both Britain and America (only). Even without further immigration, America’s population was doubling every 20 years and “will in another century be more than the people of England, and the greatest number of Englishman will be on this side of the water.” If even more English came over, so much the better. But why allow anyone else to come?

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.” Franklin’s view, from a 1751 essay, was as politically incorrect then as it would be today. But, he went even further in what now would be called “ethnocentric.” He wanted to keep out not only Germans, but everyone except the English.

However, always the realist, he offered a wistful apology. “But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my country, for such kind of partiality is natural to mankind.”

Perhaps when time travel is practical, he will get a glimpse of all the wonders in the modern world that we take for granted too often. He will be one happy man… and I hope to be around to hear what he says.

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].

Let’s Not Forget that America Remains a Unique Place

medal-struck-for-henry-clay
A U.S. Mint medal struck for presentation to Henry Clay in 1852 sold for $346,000 at a September 2016 auction.

 

By Jim O’Neal

The 1800 census reported 5.3 million people living in the United States – more than twice the number in the colonies at the beginning of the American Revolution. There were four cities with populations greater than 10,000 – Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Half of all Americans were under 16 years old.

The men and women who were born between 1776 and 1800 would not have had any contact with the colonial era. They would have none of the sensibilities of having been subjects of the King of England. They were the inheritors of the revolution and took seriously that they had inherited a remarkable revolution. They intended to demonstrate to a world of monarchs what democracy, what a democratic society could truly be.

Thomas Jefferson’s influence was the most pervasive in this generation and was constantly the subject of discussion. The statesman Henry Clay loomed as a hero as did DeWitt Clinton, because of his leadership in building the Erie Canal. Jefferson was important because he so clearly articulated a different conception of what a republic could be and he had a unique vision of how human beings could participate in their society. He is a point of reference throughout this period.

Once the Revolutionary War was won, there was an outpouring of people into the western parts of New York, Virginia, Georgia and Pennsylvania. By 1820-1830, people primarily farmed since 85 percent lived in rural areas.

Then came the shift to commerce, manufacturing and the professions – medical, teaching, preaching, legal. This required an infrastructure of teachers as literacy spread almost everywhere. Railroads, canals, steamboats and roads were all enablers of this new society, allowing it to flourish and grow.

The military was small, other than the swelling for the War of 1812, but troops quickly demobilized from 70,000 back down to 14,000. West Point was teaching civil engineering, with military people participating in economic life via the railroads and canals. Each veteran received 160 acres of land and they pushed further west.

In the North, almost everyone was educated, including free blacks. In the South, fewer were educated, but there were lots of academics for planters’ children. When the British writers Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens toured America, they found a society that was intoxicatingly free and saw things they loved: the outpouring of human energy, voluntary association at will, the zeal of forming a society to determine America’s character.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin when asked what the founders had created: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

The first generation of Americans did a pretty fair job and we are still reaping the benefits of their efforts. I hope this generation does as well in keeping the flame of liberty burning brightly. America is still a unique place on Earth.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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 Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].