Thursday, January 3, 2013

More on Hyde Park

Our family disagrees as to what was our favorite stop during our quick trip to New York. For Sherry and the kids, it was the Vanderbilt Mansion. For me, it was FDR's home.

Occasionally one just comes across a place that just happened to be a stage for some of history's most meaningful acts. That is the powerful sense one gets from FDR's home. Guests in the home include Chiang Kai-shek, King George VI, and Winston Churchill. Oh, and let's not forget the host of advisers and cabinet members who met with the president there. In many ways, I felt like I was in the home where the course of the 20th century was determined.

I'll visit again. It meant that much to me. I'm interested in what another guide can offer. The guide we had was quite good; ironically, that's why I'd like to see the home with another one. When these guides are on top of their game, they don't give the same tour every day. They focus on what part of the historical story is most compelling. For our guide, FDR's disability most intrigued him (and motivated several good anecdotes on the tour). But when prompted, he offered very good insight as to the politics that took place in the house or the way in which the physical property changed over the years.

Franklin Roosevelt is a figure that for a long time I tried to resent and dislike. As I got the opportunity to teach about him to students, I came to really appreciate him as a leader. Perhaps what FDR represents to me is greatness, in much the same way Lincoln and Washington represent greatness. But greatness doesn't imply complete agreement with the man, his policies, or even his legacy. I can disagree with some of those things he did, but still revere and respect the kind of leadership he provided the country at a time when leadership was sorely desired.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

150th Anniversary Alert

A century and a half ago (or seven and a half scores ago, in Lincoln's unit of measurements) the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. Rarely in the history of a people, of a civilization, does a leader so substantially pivot the trajectory of his or her people. In a document that, ironically, did not free a single individual, Lincoln utterly transformed the nature of the war and ended an institution which had characterized American life for centuries. 

The greatest value of the film Lincoln is in how it demonstrates that there wasn't necessarily any permanence to the Emancipation Proclamation itself. A Constitutional Amendment was needed to finish the work. And when that failed to finish the work of ensuring equal citizenship the Constitution was amended again, and again. 

I must sigh when I measure what Lincoln, his cabinet, and Congress accomplished then with the charade that these debt ceiling negotiations have been. Now our politicians can't seem to reach across the aisle on matters of financing the operations of government. Lincoln and Congress in their day struggled also to create 11th hour deals (wait, last night's deal wasn't really 11th hour . . . it was more like 12th hour). The Wade-Davis measure was so last-minute is was pocket-vetoed by Lincoln. The 13th Amendment itself passed the House of Representatives in the last days of a lame duck Congress. Those certainly seem like more noble arguments  necessitating last-minute compromise than how much money our government can borrow, or whether it will be household incomes higher than $250,000 or $450,000 that will be subject to a rise in taxes amounting to a few percentages of a point. 

But there wasn't anything last-minute regarding the Emancipation Proclamation. It was drafted in August. It was promulgated in September. It took effect on New Year Day. Its full promise took a century to deliver (and some might argue it wasn't fully delivered). 

The Johnsons' 2012-13 Holiday Adventure

Cabin fever got the best of us. A trip to the U.S.S. New Jersey on Saturday helped the restlessness a little bit.
Three brave souls marching through a snowy day on the U.S.S. New Jersey. 
Sam at the U.S.S. New Jersey.

But we had to do something more. Therefore, we made a quick decision Monday morning to drive to New York to visit a couple of historical homes, one of them the home of Franklin Roosevelt at Hyde Park.

Sam poses at the entrance to FDR's home.

An aside: I've recently decided that I need a new historical quest (now that the abandoned tunnels of the Pennsylvania Turnpike quest is satisfied). It's time to see the home of every U.S. president, hopefully in order from greatest to worst. I'll go in approximate order, cycling through the greats (now done), then the near-greats, then the average, then the poor. I'll use the Siena survey to help guide this, though I disagree with its ranking of FDR at number 1.

In our nearly seven years of parenthood we've taught Sam and Caroline how to be good travellers. We were able to get out of the house within an hour of deciding to go yesterday morning. We made it to FDR's Hyde Park home by 1 pm. We took part on a 1:30 pm tour there and then got over to the nearby Vanderbilt Mansion for its 4pm tour. Sam and Caroline were really well-behaved for a couple of tours that were aimed more at adults.
Sam and Caroline at Hyde Park standing by the map mosaic.
I'm impressed, however, at good tour guides' ability to speak simultaneously to a wide range of ages, much like pastors have to. The guide at FDR's home was really good at it, even including Sam in a demonstration with a pair of 7-lb. weights meant to show the burn FDR carried on his legs. Though the guide at Vanderbilt wasn't as adept at including the little ones in presentation, she was very pleasant to our kids.

We decided to stay at a Hampton Inn in Poughkeepsie, which was wise given that a three-hour drive home last night would've been miserable. Instead we got to visit a hotel pool. I'm amazed at how wondrous a small, highly chlorinated 3'9" pool can be to a pair of kids.

We returned this morning.

The view from the back deck at FDR's Hyde Park home.

Vanderbilt Mansion at Hyde Park.