Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lilliputian politicians

            Sometimes politicians we love to hate take such reprehensible stands on subjects dear to our hearts, we are compelled to reach into our grab bag of 19th century retorts for a response—“Lilliputian politicians” often fits the bill.

Illustration by Milo Winter (1888-1956). 

            This phrase was very popular with editorial writers and cartoonists in the 1850’s. An 1853 editorial in The New York Times inveighed against “the tribes of Lilliputian politicians” that were robbing the U.S. Treasury.[1] The Brooklyn Eagle told its readers in an 1854 article that “Lilliputian politicians” were advocating a 10 hour working day and a requirement that employers pay their employees weekly, and in cash.[2]

Created on wove paper by John L. Magee. Library of Congress.

            The 1856 lithograph above, blamed Lilliputian Democrats for the violence against antislavery settlers in Kansas after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In the cartoon, a bearded freesoiler has been tied to the Democratic platform. From left to right, U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas and President Franklin Pierce are forcing a black man into the freesoiler’s mouth, and presidential nominee James Buchanan and U.S. Senator Lewis Cass are restraining the freesoiler.

From an 1896 edition of Gulliver's Travels.

            Lilliput is an island nation that appears in Part One of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel, Gulliver’s Travels. The inhabitants of Lilliput are less than six inches tall. Lilliput’s emperor chooses his high government officials on the basis of acrobatic skill—how well they can dance on a slender white thread which is two feet long and stretched taut about twelve inches from the ground. Whenever there is a vacancy in the government, five or six candidates petition the emperor for the job and then dance on the thread. Whoever jumps the highest without falling is selected for the position.[3]

Illustration by Milo Winter (1888-1956). 
            There are two political parties on Lilliput. They hate each other so much they will not eat, drink or talk to each other. They distinguish themselves by the height of their heels. Gulliver learns that the high heels have the most respect for Lilliput’s constitution but the emperor only uses low heels in his government. The heir to the throne has a tendency to like the high heels—one of his heels is higher than the other, which makes him hobble when he walks.[4]
            Today, when it comes to controversial issues such as those involving same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration reform, fair trade agreements, global warming or health care, who are the Lilliputian politicians? Who is jumping the highest for public favor? Do they have low or high heels? Do some of them hobble?

[1] “Is the Whig Party Dead?,” New York Daily Times, July 19, 1853.
[2] “The Working Men and the Demagogues,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 16, 1854.
[3] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1912), 30–31.
[4] Ibid., 43.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Inflation calculators and the “good old days”

            The next time friends get excited and express amazement at how little things cost and how much less people were paid in the “good old days,” settle them down with a couple of clicks on an inflation calculator. Often, the low prices and salaries, when adjusted for inflation, are not THAT low!
            Recently, a friend forwarded me an email from an excited acquaintance of his who was amazed at some 1910 statistics he had come across. Some of the data was truly staggering. For example, according to the email, the 1910 life expectancy for men was 47 years—in 2010, men could expect to live 76.2 years.[1] Again, in 1910, only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school—in 2009, 85 percent of adults aged 25 or over reported having a high school diploma.[2]

Cartoon by Otto Lang in "Judge" magazine (1890-1910). Library of Congress.

            However, after the figures in the email were fed into an inflation calculator, the “amazing” 1910 prices for sugar, eggs and coffee, and the salaries for accountants and mechanical engineers, were underwhelming.
            According to the email, in 1910 sugar cost four cents a pound, eggs were fourteen cents a dozen, and coffee was fifteen cents a pound. But, an inflation calculator indicated that in today’s dollars, sugar would cost about $1.00 a pound in 1910 (at a grocery store today, sugar can be purchased for 49 cents a pound); eggs would cost about $3.50 a dozen in 1910 (in a grocery store today, eggs can be purchased for $2.06 a dozen); and coffee would cost approximately $3.75 a pound in 1910 (coffee can be purchased for $3.68 a pound in one of today’s supermarkets).[3]

Library of Congress.

            According to the email, an accountant in 1910 could expect to earn $2,000 a year, and a mechanical engineer might earn $5,000 a year. But, an inflation calculator showed that in today’s dollars, an accountant in 1910 could expect to earn about $50,060 a year, and a mechanical engineer in 1910 might earn approximately $125,150 a year.[4]
            The 19th century Scottish historian and essayist, Thomas Carlyle, once said, “you might prove anything by figures.” The use of an inflation calculator can add a new dimension to the numbers game and give new meaning to the prices and salaries paid in those “good old days.”

[1] “Life Expectancy,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed April 18, 2015,
[2] U.S. Census Bureau, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009,” February 2012.
[3] “The Inflation Calculator,” accessed April 17, 2015, This calculator can be used on dollar amounts from the years 1800 to 2014. The following is another calculator that can be used for dollar amounts from the years 1913 to 2015. “Inflation Calculator: Bureau of Labor Statistics,” accessed April 17, 2015,
[4] “The Inflation Calculator.”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Visiting Thurlow Weed, Chester A. Arthur and Henry Burden

            What do the astute New York political operator known as “The Dictator,” the first president of the U.S. born in Vermont, and the titan of iron manufacturing from Troy, NY have in common? Correct. All three men are buried in Albany Rural Cemetery which was incorporated 174 years ago, on April 2, 1841.

South Gate, Albany Rural Cemetery

            The cemetery covers 467 acres of land just north of Albany, NY and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. There are two gated-entrances to the cemetery. The Main Gate is on Cemetery Avenue, off Broadway (Route 32) in the village of Menands but the South Gate is easier to find. It is off Menands Road (Route 378) at the intersection of Van Rensselaer Boulevard (Route 377).
            Because public parks did not exist at the time the cemetery opened for business in 1845, city residents flocked to its grounds for weekend picnics and other outdoor activities. The cemetery drew tourists from all over the world who came to see the cemetery’s natural beauty.
            Author Paul Grondahl wrote that the cemetery is “one of the oldest and grandest examples of the rural cemetery movement in America.” He added, “It is an epic city of the dead, a history lesson carved in stone.”[1]

Thurlow Weed's final resting place

            To appreciate the history lesson Grondahl referred to, consider the final resting places and the accomplishments of just three of the 135,000 people buried in the cemetery. The first to consider is Thurlow Weed whose grave is marked by a soaring granite obelisk. Born in Cairo, NY on November 15, 1797, he founded the Albany Evening Journal which touted the party line for the three political parties he helped found in New York State—the Anti-Masonic Party, the Whig Party, and the Republican Party. Known as “The Dictator” because of his heavy-handed political style, Weed successfully backed William H. Seward to win election as the first Whig governor of New York in 1838. Two years later, Weed was a key power broker who put William Henry Harrison into the White House as the first Whig president. In 1848, Weed successfully engineered the elections of Zachary Taylor for president, Millard Fillmore of New York for vice president, and Seward for U.S. Senator—all Whigs.
            Weed tried to win the Republican presidential nomination for Seward in 1860 but was defeated by Abraham Lincoln’s forces. “The Dictator” generally backed Lincoln during the Civil War but had a falling out with Radical Republicans over the emancipation of slaves. After Lincoln’s assassination, Weed threw his support to President Andrew Johnson and became publisher of the New York Commercial Advertiser from 1867 to 1869. Following Johnson’s presidency, Weed faded from the political scene. He died in New York City on November 22, 1882.[2]
            His grave in the cemetery is in Lot 1, Section 109, which is easy to find at the intersection of Linden and Cypress Avenues.

President Chester A. Arthur's final resting place

            Up next in this brief “history lesson carved in stone” is Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the U.S. He was born in Fairfield, Vermont on October 5, 1829 and as a child moved with his family to New York State where he grew up. A graduate of Union College in Schenectady in 1848, he began practicing law in New York City in 1854. Arthur subsequently joined the newly formed Republican Party and in 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him collector of the Port of New York, a very lucrative position. He was responsible for collecting about 75 percent of the nation’s duties from ships which landed within his jurisdiction.
            To balance the 1880 Republican national ticket, Arthur was nominated to run for vice president with the party’s presidential nominee, James A. Garfield of Ohio. The Garfield-Arthur team was elected. However, on July 2, 1881, an assassin shot Garfield and when he died in September, Arthur became president.
            Highlights of Arthur’s presidency include his support for civil service reform, the prosecution of those involved in a major post office scandal, and the creation of a steel-ship navy. His health deteriorated toward the end of his term in 1884 which undermined his bid to win the GOP presidential nomination in his own right. Arthur died on November 18, 1886 at his home in New York City.[3]
            His grave is in Lot 8, Section 24, which is located toward the end of South Ridge Road in the middle of the cemetery. The presence of a large American flag and a number of smaller American and state flags, as well as a large bronze angel standing beside a large stone casket, makes Arthur’s tomb easy to find.

Henry Burden's final resting place

            The last person in this “lesson carved in stone” is Henry Burden, the iron titan from Troy, NY who was born in 1791. He founded the Burden Iron Works in Troy which at its peak employed 1,400 workers and had a $500,000 a year payroll.
            Burden invented a horseshoe machine that during the Civil War could make sixty shoes a minute—previously, it took two men one full day to make sixty horseshoes. Burden’s yearly horseshoe sales went from $100,000 to $1.3 million during the war.
            The Burden Iron Works also used advanced rivet machines that could make 80 boiler rivets a minute and a machine that made hook-headed railroad spikes for the builders of the many railroads that were being constructed across the nation.
            The iron titan from Troy died in 1871 and he was buried in the Burden family vault which Burden’s wife Helen had designed. Twenty-two other members of the Burden family are also interred there.[4]
            Burden’s final resting place is difficult to find. It is located in Lot 4, Section 61, on the side of a hill located close to the foot of Middle Ridge Road, near the cemetery’s Chapel Mausoleum.

[1] “Visit Our Historical Grave Sites In Albany, NY,” Albany Rural Cemetery, accessed March 31, 2015,
[2] Scott C. Monje, “Weed, (Edward) Thurlow,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 1681.
[3] Jon Sterngas, “Arthur, Chester A(lan),” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 128; William A. DeGregorio, “Chester A. Arthur,” in The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (New York: Gramercy Books, 2001), 308–314.
[4] Paul Grondahl, “Henry Burden (1791-1871): Iron Titan, Horseshoe and Rail Spike Innovator,” Times Union, accessed March 31, 2015,; “Visit Our Historical Grave Sites In Albany, NY.”