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Hamilton: Slavery and the Founding Fathers

How do you reconcile that a significant number of the men who founded our country owned people? Just as Chris Jackson and Daveed Diggs who played Washington and Jefferson in Hamilton had to struggle with this question, I wanted my students to wrestle with the challenge as well.
I started with a “Human Likert Scale,” which I had encountered recently. Indicating one end of the white board as a “10- Jefferson was a really good man” and the other end as “1- Jefferson was a terrible person,” I asked the students to stand near the approximate location of their response. I was pleased that we have built enough trust that the students didn’t hesitate to stand up and participate. The entire class was clumped together between 2 and 4.

After everyone sat down again and we started discussing Jefferson, it became obvious that the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase made little difference to the group, who are almost entirely non-White. They felt the pain of slavery acutely and personally and were unimpressed by Jefferson’s accomplishments in the face of his ownership of slaves.  

One student who is White, ventured that the slave owners at the time didn’t know that slavery was bad. This suggestion met with civility but a complete lack of sympathy from the group at large. With the intention of pointing out that the living conditions and beatings had to be hard to miss as inhuman treatment, I asked what it was like to be a slave. The first comment I got was that lighter-skinned slaves tended to have more privileged positions inside the house whereas darker-skinned slaves had the back-breaking work of tending to the fields. This insight came from a student who has the deepest skin tone in our class, and I wondered just how much the dark color of her skin had affected the life she has had and the messages she has been taught.

Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, which began when Hemings was about 14, may have been the ultimate in unforgivable acts for the class. Jefferson started sleeping with Hemings when he was Ambassador to France, and she eventually had six children by him. To play devil’s advocate, because no one else was going to do it, I pointed out that although Hemings was free when she in France since there were no slavery laws, she voluntarily returned with Jefferson to Virginia where she would be a slave again. The students vociferously shot down any implication that Hemings was a willing participant since with Jefferson in such a position of power, Hemings really didn’t have the ability to tell him no. They pointed out that in an abusive relationship, although the victim technically has the ability to leave, there is intense pressure to stay. One courageous student confessed that she had actually pressured her own mother to stay in an abusive relationship because she, herself, had been manipulated by the abuser into believing that if it all fell apart, it was her fault as the daughter. Yes, Jefferson didn’t have a chance with this group.

Although we largely focused on Jefferson, I added that Washington was his own bundle of contradictions. He hated slavery, but since he couldn’t figure out how to make a plantation profitable without slaves, he didn’t free his own slaves until his death. Since Martha Curtis Washington had a large number of slaves from her first marriage, Washington actually freed less than half of his slaves. The rest of the slaves would be freed after Martha’s death, which made for an uncomfortable end of life for her since she constantly wondered if she was going to be hastened to her end.

The Washingtons treated their house slaves extremely well as part of the family, making sure that they were well-clothed and could read and write. Ironically, these qualities made it more likely that these slaves could escape and stay free as several of the slaves did. The Washingtons were both bewildered and hurt at what they saw as betrayals; they didn’t understand that even a well-treated slave is still a slave and souls in bondage thirst for freedom.  

I think my students would have given them an earful.


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Hamilton: Wait for It and Quiz Time!

One of the two best songs Lin-Manual Miranda ever wrote (so far!), Wait For It takes Aaron Burr out of the narrator role and allows him to tell his own story and his own philosophy of life. As a musician, I love the musical puns in the song; the first words start slightly after the first beat of the measure, and there is a huge rest just before the song’s climax, “Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.” You have to wait for it.  
My students’ assignment for Friday is to write an essay comparing and contrasting Hamilton and Burr. I elected to throw them a bone for this one, so we brainstormed what we knew about the two characters and how they were both similar and different. I’ve been emphasizing on their short papers that their arguments need to be supported with evidence (yes, even in a non-science class!), and somehow our brainstorming devolved into quiz time with the students supplying the missing lyrics to answer my questions.
Question: What do we know about Hamilton’s parents? When they stared at me blankly, I got them started, “How does a bastard orphan…”

Answer: “Son of a whore and a Scotsman”
Question: What do we know about Burr’s parents?  

Answer: “His mother was a genius. His father commanded respect.”

   (His father was actually one of the founders of the College of New Jersey that became Princeton)
Question: If Burr’s philosophy is “Wait for it,” then what is Hamilton’s?”

Answer: “There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait.”
Question: Hamilton talks all the time. What is Burr’s take on that?

Answer: “Talk less. Smile more.”

Question: How do we know Hamilton talks all the time?

Answer: “Oh, am I talking too loud? Sometimes I get overexcited, shoot off at the mouth.”  

   (After the Revolution ends, Burr and Hamilton both become lawyers in New York City. One judge commented that they were both a pleasure to have in his courtroom, but what Burr could say in half an hour, it took Hamilton two hours. As he put it, “Hamilton had the most durable pair of lungs in the whole New York Bar.”)
Question. We know that Hamilton is extremely opinionated and not shy about letting people know what he thinks. What is Burr like? And the entire class chanted in rhythm:

Answer: “Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against and what you’re for.”  
I’m optimistic for some good papers!

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The Evolution of a Blog

For some time now, I’ve had the hankering to write and share ideas that are noodling around in my mind.  The challenge was whether to preserve this original blog as a record of my Congressional Fellowship year in Washington DC and start a new blog on a separate topic or to stick with this original site.  Ultimately, my father pointed out that the blog is my own site, and it needs to evolve with me rather than creating a new site every time I want to explore a new topic.  That was my preference as well- Dad knows how to give the right answer!

I’ll still noodle about policy ideas as they strike my fancy, but stay tuned for several new threads for this fall, assuming I’ll have time to write.

Thanks for reading,



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There and Back Again

Back in August, I was privileged to be part of a symposium celebrating 40 years of the American Chemical Society Science Policy Fellows program.  The speakers represented each of the decades of the program, and each of us shared our fellowship experiences as well as what came afterwards.  One of the organizers identified me as, “You’re the one who went back.”  Indeed all of the other fellows had gone on to other positions in policy, a phenomenon known as “Potomac Fever,” and I was the only one who took a break from a job, spent a year in Washington, and then returned to the same job.  As time is available this spring, I plan to share how I have used my year on The Hill now that I am back in Connecticut.

In my original fellowship application, I stated that upon my return to my academic position, I planned to create a course for undergraduate students that would blend content issues with the politics I learned in Washington.  Thus this past fall, I taught an Honors seminar entitled, “Natural Resources, Science, and Public Policy.”  Mentally I subtitled the course, “What I did on my sabbatical.”  It has been the largest of the projects I’ve undertaken so far, and I’ve found it to be extremely rewarding.

The greatest challenge of the course for me was that I have little experience teaching seminar-style courses.  My reflex is always to lecture.  When I mentioned my concerns to a wise mentor, he suggested, “Well of course!  In science you actually have facts to convey.  In English, we tend to discuss opinions much more.”  His comment at least validated my discomfort.  I’m always afraid that the students won’t talk, although that was certainly not a problem by the end of the semester.

One of the ideas I implemented early on was that each student should choose a senator and state to represent.  I had been concerned that the students would each select their home states and we would have find students all talking about the same state, but that turned out not to be the case.  Indeed, although a large number of students grew up in Connecticut, neither of the Connecticut senators was selected by a student.  To start the selection process, I passed out a map of the United States, described some of the environmental and energy issues by region, and the students proceeded to select a reasonably representative group of Senators, including members of both political parties.

I personally enjoyed the challenge of a student asking me to describe the senior and junior senators of a state, and I was generally able to provide a few pertinent details about each senator’s interests, committees, and personalities entirely off the top of my head.  I got my first inkling of how little the students were aware of politics when I was describing the two senators from Nevada.  I said, “Oh, well the senior senator is Harry Reid.”  The student looked blankly at me and asked, “Who is that?”  Yes, we had some work to do.  (At the time, he was the Senate Majority Leader if you need the hint.)

At the end of the semester, the students specifically commented on how much they liked that they were each representing a specific senator.  One student announced, “I liked learning about a state outside of New England.”  In contrast, another student who was a native of Massachusetts and selected one of her home state senators commented, “I learned that I knew nothing at all about my home state.”

Stay tuned, and I’ll share more of my adventures with my honors students this past semester.


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Water Based Hazards

I recently had the experience of moderating a Congressional briefing panel discussing water-based hazards.  Since my role was to create a big picture framework for the presentations (as well as keep speakers to their allotted time and control the flow of the question and answer period), I took the opportunity to think about all of the challenges we encounter related to water.

Some of the biggest water stories lately involve too little water.  I find checking the U.S. Drought Monitor to be a heartbreaking exercise since it shows the extent of California’s crippling drought that has emptied reservoirs and made water rationing a reality and a necessity.  During the year when my heart belonged to Colorado, my adopted state was in a similar world of hurts, and pictures from the southeastern part of the state were reminiscent of the dustbowl with blowing dirt and sand that was no longer anchored by the dead and dying plants.  Even when the rains come, they first must saturate the parched ground before there is excess to raise the water level in the lakes and reservoirs.

20140909 us drought monitor

Then there are the problems with an overabundance of water.  After all, storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy are a combination of wind and far too much water for the ground to absorb.  Images of submerged rail lines and coastal communities washed away after Sandy demonstrate that big storms are not exclusive to the South.

Flooding is also not exclusive to the coasts.  In September 2013, a huge rainstorm that settled in over the Rockies demonstrated how fragile our infrastructure can be.  Some communities were temporarily isolated by the floodwaters, whereas others were cut off from the rest of the world when roads built along the Big Thompson riverbed were washed out.  As people brought in groceries on horseback, I was reminded of my year of transporting groceries in DC without a car. At that point, it all comes down to weight and bulk of what you select and carry.

We in the United States, often take our water supply and our water quality for granted.  That illusion of an infallible water supply has run up against reality several times in the past year or so.  Over 300,000 residents of West Virginia learned the weakness of the system when a storage tank leaked out a substance used in the processing of coal.  The contaminated water was undrinkable for days.  People had to cope with either the limited bottled water that was distributed, or they drove for hours to get to clean water.  Toledo learned a similar lesson this past summer when an algae bloom of cyanobacteria dumped toxins into Lake Erie right at the water intake pipe for the city.  With waste water treatment plants equipped only to remove usual toxins rather than exotic toxins, there was more distribution of bottled water and yet more driving to find clean water.

Even disasters that on the surface seem to be unrelated turn out to affect water.  For example, forest fires in Colorado are commonly understood to be double disasters.  The first disaster is the loss of homes and properties in the fire.  The second is the effect on the water system.  In the summer of 2012, the ash from the High Park fire near Fort Collins washed down the steep slopes until the Poudre River ran black.  Does a farmer irrigate with the black water or not irrigate at all?  For the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs in the same year, the challenge was infrastructure.  The runoff of water down the steep slopes is enhanced anywhere between two and ten-fold after an intensely burning forest fire.  A few months after the fire destroyed 350 homes, a relatively routine rainstorm shed so much water off the slopes that the force of the water stacked up concrete culverts like straws at the bottom of the drainage.

Against this backdrop of water-based hazards, it was fascinating to listen to the speakers who focused on ways in which science can be a resource for creating resilient communities where the impacts of such events are prevented or reduced.  NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is working with the local and regional resources around New York City to make future zoning plans that not only consider the current flood zone maps, but also use maps that project the new flood zones taking into account future sea level rise.  In Vermont, geologists are creating landslide susceptibility maps with the goal of identifying undesirable places to build and potentially buy out owners of existing structures.  Toxicologists are searching for new faster ways of measuring health risks of chemicals without using animal testing, so safe levels in water can be established rapidly.  Construction companies are working with FEMA to create programs that will pay not just to replace a damaged concrete bridge with an identical copy, but to pay the extra money required to build the new bridge higher and out of steel so that the new bridge will be less prone to damage, last longer, and be more easily repaired.

I fielded one question that intended to hold the speakers accountable for creating a grand consolidated plan for addressing all of the challenges of water-based hazards.  I pointed out that the panel had highlighted several good starts and that as scientists and engineers, we stand ready to help.  We have to leave the grand plan to the policymakers.


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The Senate and Elections

In Miss Gonser’s eighth grade social studies class, we had to learn the purpose of each amendment to the Constitution.  The 17th amendment provides for the direct election of senators, and I remember at the time thinking that this was a pretty trivial and uninteresting amendment.  I have lately learned more about the history of this amendment, which turns out to be far more interesting than I had thought.

Our founders spent quite a bit of time contemplating the Senate and how it should work.  The story is told that Thomas Jefferson was Ambassador to France at the time and thus was absent for most of the negotiations.  When he returned, he talked to George Washington and asked why on earth the Senate had been created.  In reply, Washington pointed out that Jefferson had just poured some of his tea out of his cup and into the saucer.  Washington asked why, and Jefferson replied, “To cool it off.”  Washington said, “That’s why we created the Senate.”  The upper chamber was designed to cool the fiery passions expected in the House of Representatives.

We are all familiar with the decision that senators would be elected for six year terms, and that one third of the senators would be up for election every two years to prevent rapid swings in the composition of the body, but I hadn’t realized that originally, senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote.  Although the intent was that the senators would stay above the political fray, the country rapidly fell into the partisan politics that has so often characterized the government.  For example, in Virginia, Patrick Henry who controlled the state legislature, not only blocked the election of James Madison to the Senate, and instead substituted his own political allies for the spots, but he also attempted to interfere with Madison’s election to the House.  Since Madison helped to shape the Constitution, he was arguably actually the most qualified man in Virginia to serve in the new federal government.

A senator had considerable political influence in his home state because of the Senate’s role in approving nominations to federal appointments.  Through the spoils system, named for “to the victor go the spoils,” a successful candidate rewarded his supporters with federal posts and the accompanying salaries, thus buying votes in the state legislatures.  The political parties reinforced this system as party bosses arranged for themselves or their designated candidates to be elected to the Senate. In the 1880’s, a British historian commented on the number of very rich men in the U.S. Senate, saying, “Some are senators because they are rich; a few are rich because they are senators.”

As early as 1826, a bill was introduced in the House to allow for “direct” election of senators, meaning that the population of a state would get to vote for their senators, just as they voted for their representatives.  Needless to say, that bill went nowhere in the Senate.  It took another 88 years before a Constitutional amendment was ratified by the required three-quarters of the states and in 1913 became the 17th amendment.   No longer would deadlocked legislatures result in long term vacancies in the Senate, and the influence of the party bosses began to wane

The change in election format was accompanied by complaints from political analysts that the Senate had become much more like the House- swayed by popular opinion and populated by a less exalted character of man, both in stark contrast to the intent of the framers of the Constitution.  Certainly there were a considerable number of retirements resulting from the change, since seats that had formerly been secured by influencing a few score state representatives became far less reliable in general elections.

As I was learning about this history, I was particularly struck by the role of money in the process.  The framers of the Constitution had considered and rejected the idea that senators should own a certain amount of land or have a certain amount of wealth, but the influence of money in the election of senators from the state legislatures still became significant.  Although we have been electing senators by popular vote for the past century, personal wealth still plays a significant role since changes in campaign finance rules make it easier for a wealthy individual to finance his or her own election run.  Thus wealth often trumps individuals with a genuine skill or passion for government.  Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.  (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)


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“Upstairs at the White House”

The South Portico with the Truman Balcony

The South Portico with the Truman Balcony

Amazon has apparently recognized that some of my reading tastes have slanted toward history and politics, so when Upstairs at the White House came up as a recommendation, I decided to give it a try.

Written by J.D. West, who spent 28 years as an usher and then the chief usher of the White House, it is a charming collection of stories and observations of the First Ladies who occupied the President’s House during West’s tenure.  With so many biographies relishing revelations of scandal, I appreciated that West was able to emphasize the strengths and talents of each of the First Ladies and respect the differences among them without ever describing them negatively.

Each First Lady had a distinctive managerial style.  Eleanor Roosevelt traveled extensively, met with people and entertained a large group nightly and needed to manage all of those logistics.  Bess Truman was part of the closely knit trio of Harry, Bess, and their daughter, Margaret, and managed with the thriftiness of a Midwestern housewife.  Maisie Eisenhower, as the wife of a general, was accustomed to handling a large complex household, so she had a regular morning meeting with the staff, which she handled while sitting in her pink bed.  Jackie Kennedy was highly organized but more informal, so instructions from her tended to come on the fly.  She was soft-spoken so you had to listen closely to her, but ultimately the staff learned that, “Do you think it would be possible…” from Mrs. Kennedy carried the same weight as, “I want you to do this now” from Mrs. Eisenhower.  Lady Bird Johnson prioritized herself far behind her family, particularly her Texan husband who strode around the halls and shouted through the rooms as though he was still occupying the wide expanses of his home state.  With each new First Lady, the White House staff adjusted to her and she adjusted to them.  The key to continuity for the staff was loyalty to the White House rather than to a particular family.

Perhaps because I knew little of the Trumans, I was particularly intrigued by some of their stories.  When the Trumans arrived after the death of FDR, the idea that the President and First Lady actually shared the same bedroom created quite a stir among the staff.  That the Trumans enjoyed a close relationship was certainly obvious when a rather embarrassed Mrs. Truman had to ask to have the President’s bed fixed after two slats broke in the middle of the night.

The Trumans and Margaret liked to take meals under the south portico facing the Washington Monument.  The area was shaded by awnings, which regularly needed to be cleaned, so President Truman proposed a new balcony on the second floor that would provide an excellent view while also eliminating the need for the awnings.  In spite of his growing disfavor with Congress, who held the purse strings, Truman managed to push the project through.  After the balcony was completed, however, the Trumans realized that the space was extremely public and visible to the growing number of tourists who passed by for a picture.  Thus other than using the balcony to watch the odd baseball game played on the Ellipse, the Trumans went back to their first floor dining habits.

Sometime after the balcony was completed, Mrs. Truman was entertaining the DAR in the large oval Blue Room, which is in the center of the second floor.  She suddenly heard the tinkle of glass, and she realized that the large chandelier overhead was swaying, clinking the crystals together.  She sent for Mr. West, who investigated, and discovered that the source of the vibration had been the large head butler merely walking across the floor of the room overhead to fetch a book for the President who was taking a bath.  Further investigation revealed that the whole White House interior was structurally unsound, and the President had been fortunate that the ceiling didn’t give way and drop him and his bathtub into the laps of the DAR ladies below.

While the Trumans were away on their successful campaign for re-election, a thorough study of the White House was carried out, and it showed that the interior walls were built on soft clay footings rather than solid rock, that doors built into interior walls had further weakened the structure, and then three sets of plumbing, multiple revisions to the electrical wiring, and even large mounds of sawdust left in the walls during construction had turned the structure into a fire trap.  The bathtub did indeed start to sink through the floor, as did one leg of Margaret’s piano.  The only part of the house that seemed to be structurally sound was the new balcony!

The Trumans thus moved into Blair House across the street for the duration of the necessary renovations, and during that time they had one close call with a pair of assassins who tried to shoot their way into the White House to kill the President.  Had the gunmen arrived a mere half an hour later, President Truman would have been coming down the front stairs in full view of the front door.  It was this incident that marked the beginning of significantly increased security around the President.

In West’s 28 year career, there were only five transitions among Presidents.  He started when FDR was President, and he left a mere six weeks after the Nixons arrived.  Because both Roosevelt and Kennedy died in office, there were only three times that West experienced the tightly choreographed transition between families that occurs on Inauguration Day.  The belongings of the new First Family are not allowed to enter the White House until the incoming President takes the oath of office at noon, and then it is a highly orchestrated maneuver to arrange and unpack all of the possessions in the two hours before the family arrives to take up residence.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, in part because having been to the White House, I could envision many of the rooms that they discussed, and I could imagine the changes described, such as the addition of a stage to the East Room for performances under the Eisenhowers.  A good read with delightful stories and (almost) no snark.



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