Margaret Fuller’s Italy Comes to Life
By Emilie Haertsch, Publications
Author and MHS Fellow Megan Marshall recently published a new biography of Margaret Fuller titled Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013), and on the evening of Wednesday, 13 March, she joined with Italian folk musicians Newpoli to honor Margaret Fuller’s time in Italy.
A Massachusetts native, Fuller was, in Marshall’s words, an “intellectual prodigy and brilliant conversationalist.” In the 1840s, Fuller organized the “Conversations” discussion group in what is now the Jamaica Plains neighborhood of Boston, and came to know many prominent intellectuals in the Boston area. Fuller befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and joined the growing American Transcendentalist movement. An accomplished writer, she cofounded the Transcendentalist publication the Dial, and became its first editor. Horace Greeley then hired Fuller to be a front-page columnist for the New York Tribune and eventually sent her to Europe as a correspondent.
Fuller’s travels led her to Italy in 1847 when she met a young Italian man named Giovanni Angelo Ossoli and they became lovers. They had a child together and then married. Fuller lived in Italy until 1849, and this period of her life was the focus of the MHS event. Marshall spoke of Fuller’s feelings of contentment during her respite in Italy. “Rome fulfills my hopes,” Fuller wrote. She witnessed the Roman revolution of 1848 and became enamored of Italian culture.
That Italian culture was on display at this event in the form of traditional Italian folk music. After a reading by Marshall, Newpoli took the stage and serenaded a captivated audience with songs ranging from tarantellas to ballads. The songs touched on subjects as diverse as funny tongue-twisters about fish to sad tales of corruption in church and government.
In a great tragedy, Margaret Fuller, her husband, and their young son died in a shipwreck just off the coast of Fire Island, New York, on their return voyage from Italy. But in listening to her story and hearing the music she experienced on the streets of Rome, it was easy to feel her presence still inspiring the Boston intellectual and cultural scene.
| Published: Friday, 15 March, 2013, 8:00 AM
Historian Ray Raphael on that Flummoxing Electoral College
By Emilie Haertsch, Publications
Twelve years ago at this time Vice President Al Gore ran against governor of Texas George W. Bush, leading to chaotic election results. The votes were so close that one candidate won the popular vote while another won the electoral vote. That was right about the time that people across America began asking, what is the Electoral College, and how can a candidate win the popular vote and still lose the election? Who would create such a system? Many are still asking these questions as we approach another close presidential election in November, and historian Ray Raphael has the answers.
Raphael is currently a Senior Research Fellow with Humboldt State University in Northern California. He authored the acclaimed People’s History of the American Revolution as well as many other books on the founding of the United States, and his latest book is Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive. Raphael visited the Society on Monday, September 24, to present “The Curious Creation of the Electoral College: What the Founders Didn't Want and Didn't See Coming.”
“Welcome, fans of the Electoral College,” Raphael began, to the laughter of the audience. He went on to explain the roots of the electoral system in the Federal Convention of 1787 and the ways in which even the founders viewed it as an imperfect solution. The Virginia Plan, an outline of government proposed by the Virginia delegates, called for an undetermined number of members of an executive branch chosen by the legislature. James Wilson of Virginia, however, proposed a single executive elected by the people. Although the members of the convention agreed upon the idea of a single executive, with very limited powers, they disliked the idea of a popular vote to decide the election. Wilson outlined an electoral system as an alternative, but it was rejected. The feeling of the convention was that Congress should be involved in selecting the president. Why the opposition to a popular vote?
“They wanted government by the people,” Raphael said, “but not the people ruling on a daily basis.”
Finally, the question of how to elect the executive was referred to a committee, which became known as the “Grand Committee.” They created the electoral system we know today, which does not involve Congress directly in presidential elections. The committee also gave the president powers of treaty and appointment. The electoral system and the greater powers allocated to the president were contrary to the sentiments of the convention as a whole, but nonetheless the electoral system was ratified as part of a final effort to complete the Constitution. As a result, electors representing each state, which are equal in number to its Congressional representation, elect the president. Although Maine and Nebraska count their electoral votes proportionally, the rest have a winner-take-all system. In winner-take-all states all the electoral votes go to the candidate who had the most votes in that state, which in four cases has resulted in a candidate winning the popular vote and losing the electoral vote, as we saw in 2000—and which came very close to happening again in 2004.
The committee designed the Electoral College to avoid corruption. They believed that if the electors, who were chosen by the state legislatures, voted at a distance they would be less likely to succumb to the dangers of intrigue and faction. The founders expected the electors to behave nobly and do what was best for the nation. But it only took eight years for national political parties to take hold, resulting in electors having no discretion in voting. Their votes were pre-committed to their parties.
“It’s Oedipal,” said Raphael. “In trying to escape your fate, you create it.”
The Electoral College has evolved considerably from the original intent of the founders, which was to protect the election of the executive from corruption. But even after the collapse of the election process in 2000, Raphael believes it is unlikely to be changed by a constitutional amendment. Voters in rural states, with small populations, and voters in swing states are courted because their votes have added electoral weight, so they prefer this electoral system.
“Isn’t it amazing?” asks Raphael. “Humans are stuck with their own contrivances for centuries.”
| Published: Friday, 28 September, 2012, 1:00 AM
North End Historical Society Visits MHS
On Tuesday, 2 November, a group of 20 members of the North End Historical Society (NEHS) visited the MHS for a tour and document show and tell. The visit was arranged by Alex Goldfeld, the president of the NEHS and Elaine Grublin, the head of reader services at the MHS.
The guests arrived promptly at 6:00 PM for brief introductory remarks in the Dowse Library. The group then explored the building, guided by MHS staff. Anne Bentley, curator of art, lead a tour of the art and artifacts on display throughout the building, including portraits of famous North Enders such as Paul Revere. Elaine Grublin offered an introduction to using the MHS library.
Reconvening in the Dowse Library guests were treated to a North End focused document show and tell that included large detailed maps of the North End in 1798 drawn by Samuel Chester Clough, Paul Revere's deposition recounting his midnight ride, documents related to Father Taylor and the Seamen's Bethel, an early 19th century engraving of Commercial Wharf, and a number of other treasures from our collections. Librarian Peter Drummey, offered an overview of the items on display (pictured) before the guests had an opportunity to view the materials up close.
It was a wonderful evening for all that attended. We hope to see many of the North End Historical Society members return to the MHS in the future.
| Published: Friday, 4 November, 2011, 10:00 AM
“Gloriously Gruesome” Welcomes Enthusiastic Crowd
On Wednesday, 19 October, the Massachusetts Historical Society opened its doors to current and potential associate members for a reception and presentation of some of the “gloriously gruesome” items in our collections. Guests were treated to food and drink in the historic Dowse Library, followed by a show and tell given by Elaine Grublin, Head of Reader Services.
Refreshments were catered by Formaggio Kitchen (Cambridge, Mass.) and the appropriately gruesome "dark and stormy" rum punch received high marks from the taste-testers.
During the reception portion of the evening, guests wandered the public galleries on a scavenger hunt. Here, two attendees examine manuscript items on display as part of The Purchase of Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862 exhibition.
The presentation was held in our portrait gallery, and following a brief welcome by Dennis Fiori, President of the Society, Elaine Grublin introduced a number of objects in our collections with shady histories. These included a bronze death mask, an account of murder and dismemberment at Harvard Medical School, a scrap of towel bearing the blood of Abraham Lincoln, specimens of human hair and bone, a bird preserved in arsenic, and the noose that is purported to have hanged John Brown.
For those unable to attend, a number of these items were highlighted in Boston Magazine in 2009 and an online version of that article is still available.
Following the talk, guests were invited to the front of the room for a closer viewing.
We were excited to see many first-time visitors at the Society, and hope that everyone felt warmly welcomed. We invite folks to consider membership at the MHS, to return as researchers, or to attend one of our many public programs
| Published: Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 8:00 AM
Seminar Recap: Paying For “Freedom” with Her Health
On Thursday evening, October 13th, the Boston Seminar on the History of Women and Gender welcomed Helen Zoe Veit of Michigan State University who presented her paper “Paying For ‘Freedom’ with Her Health: Rising Life Expectancy, Women’s Aging, and American Youth Culture,” with comment by Brooke L. Blower of Boston University. Veit is an historian of food and nutrition whose first book, Victory Over Ourselves: American Food in the Era of the Great War (forthcoming in 2012) examines the modernization of food through home economics, food science, and self-discipline. While conducting research for Victory Over Ourselves, Veit discovered the work of Eugene Fiske and the Life Extension Institute, during the 1920s, in promoting the concept of self-discipline over “the one thing you couldn’t possibly apply [self-control of the body] to – that is, death.” “Paying For ‘Freedom’” examines the changing attitudes towards aging in the interwar period, with particular attention to the ways in which notions about the consequences of aging – and advice on anti-aging strategies – were framed differently for female and male audiences.
In comment, Blower commended Veit on her “classic cultural history objective” of seeking to understand how the discourse of self-discipline over the body as a means for extending life (and even defeating death?) has cast a “long shadow” over the 20th century. She pointed out how Veit brings our attention to the fact that, in the 1920s, Americans had to be sold on the idea that growing old could be a positive thing. One of the ways the fear of old age became managed was through separating the idea and performance of youth from one’s numerical age – the notion that acting young could actually make you physically youthful, no matter how many years you had been alive. Blower raised the question of whether the growing emphasize on youth in American culture may not, in fact, mask the reality that political and economic power remained in the hands of the late-middle-aged: “’youth’ rules; the young do not,” she suggested. Finally, she challenged Veit to provide more context – particularly exploring the way in which life extension efforts might relate to Teddy Roosevelt’s advocacy of “the strenuous life,” to fears of neurasthenia, and to the work of eugenics advocates. She was interested in popular reception of ideas concerning life extension, and whether Fiske’s advice had any noticeable effect on public practice. Given the gendered nature of the debate, she also wondered whether any women might be found pushing back against the new rhetoric of yourhfulness, and where and how they did so.
The discussion period was lively, as audience members discussed how persuasive Veit had been in her argument concerning the differing expectations of male and female youth and vitality. The consensus seemed to be that while the idea had promise, more evidence was needed. A number of suggestions were made for further exploration of context: Christian Science theology from the period, discussions of fertility and motherhood, the connections between nationalism and public health, the development of the life insurance industry and modern statistics collection, and scientific research on hormones.
The seminar series at the Massachusetts Historical Society are open to the public free of charge, with a small subscription fee for those wishing to receive the pre-circulated paper. We welcome you to explore our offerings, and hope to see you at upcoming sessions!
| Published: Wednesday, 19 October, 2011, 8:00 AM