Friday, October 31, 2014

A Biography of James K. Polk

Had you told me in highschool that I would grow up to be a man who would blog enthusiastically about a James K. Polk biography... I would have probably been really interested in the concept of "blogging."

That's because I've always been a little bit of a history nerd, and more than a little interested in the Presidents of the United States, in particular. And I've always been aware that when people like me hit a certain age, it suddenly becomes more fun to read a biography about an obscure president than even the latest sci-fi novel on the shelf.

Anyway, here's my Goodreads review on:

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and AmericaPolk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a really quick and easy read for me. The writing was crisp and conversational, and struck a balance between showing the political tensions & ambitions of each player without making anyone out to be a particular hero or villain.

I also appreciate writers who avoid the Great Man approach - a difficult task when so many of the characters viewed themselves as Great Men. Having read about Polk, I feel prepared to move on to learn more about his contemporaries, or even Andrew Jackson.

View all my reviews

To expand on that, what I really took away from this book were these things:

First, it was great growing up in Arizona, so I'm very grateful for Polk's role in acquiring that particular territory - but did we really need to stomp immediately across the entire continent without regard for the people already living there? It's interesting to see the various factions of Polk's time arguing over how to take over the land ("54'40" or Fight!" or  compromise?) and how it should be brought into the Federal system (slave states or not?), but no one ever questioned Manifest Destiny or the immorality of forced relocation and near genocide.

I guess one shouldn't expect a President who so assiduously avoided the question of slavery to have many compunctions about displacing indigenous people - especially considering that his mentor, Andrew Jackson, was responsible for the Cherokee's infamous trip down the "Trail of Tears".

It's not as though I'm about to give up my lifestyle, or lobby for reparations 160 years after the fact, but I try to deal with the regret by embracing the fact that our world has changed to the point where my reaction to reading about these events is not a purely positive, gung-ho cheer leading reaction. Maybe we can't change the past, and maybe we have to accept that "that's how the world worked, then" - but maybe we can try to make sure that's not how the world works now or in the future.

Secondly, as loosely as Americans tend to apply the term, what does "founder" really mean? After all, Polk was the 11th President; he was born after the Constitution was adopted. He doubled the size of the country, but young as it was, he didn't have much to do with "founding" it. I know a lot of people who have a vague notion of doing things the way "the Founders" would have done them, but there were a lot of things that Polk did that frankly, many of the real Founders would have found appalling.

For example, the book talks at length about how Polk expanded the Constitutional powers of his office in ways that were almost scandalous. As a Democrat, Polk also took a great deal of criticism from his Whig opponents - including one young Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. The book also makes a point of the irony that Lincoln, who challenged Polk's claim that American blood had been spilled on "American soil" and implied that the Congress had been tricked into declaring the Mexican War, would go on to stretch those powers even further in the name of holding the Union together.

But while the Civil War looms ahead, despite Polk's best efforts to ignore the signs, reading about the Mexican War really made me think about my family's place in our history.

My 3-great grandfather, Joseph Frey, was a soldier in that war, who served under General Winfield Scott and was discharged at Mexico City when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. He was a German-speaking immigrant who came to New York from Baden-Wuerttemberg some time before 1840, and he would go on to serve New York as a sergeant in the Civil War, as well. He died in the Soldier's Home in Washington, DC in 1877. Joseph was my maternal grandmother's great-grandfather.

While the war was underway, one of my paternal grandfather's great-grandfathers, Robert Greenlee, was fleeing the so-called Great Potato Famine in Ireland for Pennsylvania. He arrived in 1847 with his father, uncle, and brothers. Meanwhile, just one whole state over, William Callin - another one of my paternal grandfather's great-grandfathers - was clearing the Ohio farm that would become a stop on the Underground Railroad.

None of these people knew each other. They probably wouldn't have understood each other very well had they met, and they would have all been stunned to discover what was just around the corner for them and their families. They would see the railroads built across the continent, their children would move west - those who survived the War - and their grandchildren would meet each other and have MY grandparents. (Small world!)

I wonder what each of them thought as the Polk administration unfolded during those four years. I doubt they all would have agreed on his foreign policy goals, his approach to using tariffs to fund government, or his plan to create an independent treasury any more than we agree today on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, taxes and debt, and the Federal Reserve!

But there they were, and this was their world - as much as it was the world of President Polk - which is what I mean when I say I'm "not much for the Great Man approach" to history.

And if I've piqued your interest at all in Polk, but you don't have the time to read his biography, perhaps I could interest you in this, instead:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Photo Feature: "Uncle All"

Welcome to the first of many weekly "Photo Features"!

This post fits two categories of photos that I plan to share with you each week. (Explanations below the photo!) "Who The Heck Are They?" and "Great Beards Of History!"

For this photo, I will need help identifying these lovely people. The only clues I have are the photographer's mark ("Fred Hartsook Home Studios, No. Hollywood, Cal.") and a pencil inscription on the back that might read "Uncle All." The handwriting is open to interpretation.

As always, if you have some clues that will help me identify these folks, you can comment on the post or email me at callintad at gmail dot com.

UPDATE: Mystery Solved! Hit that link to learn the mystery couple's identity! - T

"Uncle All"

Friday, October 24, 2014

You Shoulda Seen the Other Guy!

SGT Bobby Callin, U.S. Army Air Corps
When I first took an interest in "Family Trees", I was young and innocent of sense, common or otherwise. I had the idea that if I looked hard enough I would find lurking in the branches of my ancestry kings, astronauts, baseball players... or maybe someone wealthy who had left behind a healthy fortune just for me.

So far, the closest my DNA comes to fame and fortune is "7th cousin to Richard Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower's grandchildren".* But as cool as it is to be able to say that, I've discovered a much deeper fondness for my less "glamorous" ancestors than my younger self would have thought possible.

One of those regular people was Bob Callin. His great-grandfather, William Callin, was a true pioneer, clearing at least two farms in Ohio. Before the Civil War, one of those farms was a "stop" on the Underground Railroad. Bob's grandfather, John Henry Callin, fought for the Union, alongside brothers and cousins, and became a teacher after the war. His father, John Quincy Callin, was another ground breaker, moving the family to Florida long before it became the Enchanted Kingdom. Bob himself enlisted in the Army when the rumbling approach of the Second World War could still be mistaken for a thunderstorm, and by the end of it, he had found his best friend and greatest partner, Nancy. They eventually settled in Glendale, the desert city where her father had carved out a farm back when Pancho Villa was still a real threat.

But, as impressive and manly as these deeds may sound in the history books, the real men behind them were not John Wayne archetypes. These were Real Men, who got by with love and a strange sense of humor. They would have needed a lot of both to survive. Great-grandpa William discovered an oil well on his farm, and sold it for what he thought was a great profit -- just a few years before Mr. Ford's very popular automobile took off. Grandpa John's Civil War service was spent largely in hospitals, recovering from diseases picked up in Civil War hospitals. And Bob's father, John, would write ruefully humorous letters to his son chronicling "that old Callin luck" that kept him from becoming a real estate tycoon. (It had less to do with luck, and more to do with a man who was too generous to succeed in such a cutthroat market.)

The notorious Fang, around 1974
The man I knew as Grandpa Bob was every bit as lucky as his forefathers; blessed with happiness and a healthy family, yet plagued by minor tragedies. Prone to accidents around open cupboard doors and his beloved Volkswagen, Fang, he met every challenge with a long-suffering grin, and a ready joke.

After the war, Bob decided to leave the service, and tried a few different professions and locations before joining the first class at Grand Canyon College with the intention of becoming a pastor. He took his Bachelor of Arts in 1951 and a Master of Arts in Education from Arizona State in 1960 before embarking on a career as a math teacher with the Glendale Union School District. He and grandma enjoyed traveling around the Western U.S. and camping with friends, and they kept a series of small, but comfortable recreational vehicles for just that purpose.

One memorable summer, they invited me and my cousin Jeff to visit Yellowstone National Park with them. They showed us Bryce Canyon and the Four Corners along the way, and took us to one of their favorite places in Colorado - Ouray, and the Silverton narrow gauge railroad. It was a great trip, and even though Grandma worried almost constantly that one of the three of us boys would fall off a cliff or into a geyser, all survived intact!

My most lasting impression of them as a couple came from that trip. Grandma would hover behind him on treacherous switch-backed roads, occasionally bursting out with a cautionary, "Slow down, Bob! You'll get us all killed!" I felt kind of bad for him, thinking that would stress me out as a driver - but I swear when she turned her attention to other things going on inside the motorhome, he would get a perverse twinkle in his eye, his lip would twitch slightly, and he would step on the gas and swerve (not a lot, just enough) until she came back and started in again.

The moral of the story - Callin men can be a little bit evil.

One summer, a couple of weeks before we expected them back in town, we got a frantic call that Grandpa had been hurt pretty badly in a fall. Their RV had overheated in Colorado, and when he opened the hood to investigate, the radiator hose burst causing him to hit his head on the latch and then fall out into the road. He did recover, and they did continue camping for a few more years after that, but he was hurt badly enough to lose his sense of taste! One day after he was back on his feet, I saw him go into his kitchen to make a cup of coffee (General Foods International) and sigh. I asked him what was wrong, and he explained that while he still needed the caffeine, he couldn't taste sweetness any more, which took some of the pleasure out of the coffee.

"But," he said, always looking at the bright side, "I guess I'll save money on sugar!"

My last visit with him, during our 2005 Christmas trip to Arizona, he had just come out of the hospital. He had required another procedure to clean up his circulatory system, and the doctors had left him with livid bruises on both his arms. I asked him if it hurt him, if he was alright; he said he was.

Mr. Callin, Mathematics teacher
"It's not as bad as it looks," he told me, looking somewhat glum. But then his eye twinkled, and he perked up as he said, "But you shoulda seen the OTHER guy!"

So, while I may not have found any kings or powerful magnates in our past, I have found something of much greater value to me. Our stories are the treasures that we spend at family gatherings. They collect in our memories, and the interest compounds with time. They are fortunes built on love, and Grandpa Bob always had a great storehouse of that treasure.

He will be missed, but our sadness is overwhelmed by the joy of having known him. We will mourn, but we are grateful for his life and his love: the greatest inheritance.

*Julie Nixon married Dwight D. Eisenhower, II, and my grandmother was 5th cousin to President Nixon. I'm saving that post for a special occasion...or two!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

From Little Acorns Grow

You've heard the expression before - like many ideas, it has been with us for a while:

"as an ook cometh of a litel spyr" [a spyr, or spire, is a sapling]
-Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, 1374
"The greatest Oaks have been little Acorns."
-Thomas Fuller's Gnomologia, 1732
"Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow."
-D. Everett in The Columbian Orator, 1797
  (citations courtesy of The Phrase Finder)

As I started mapping out the mighty oak that would become my family tree, I kept thinking about that phrase in all its variations. I've never been a subscriber to the Great Man theory of history, and I quickly learned that even a so called Great Man has to come from somewhere. Or, to switch metaphors, even a great individual is just a larger pebble in a stream - it's the stream that matters in the long run.

My first attempt at bringing my family history out of my personal notes and files and onto a more collaborative platform was a blog - almost identical to this one - which was only viewable to a select, invited group of contributing cousins. We had looked each other up in that tentative way that distant cousins who have never met tend to do, and for a brief while, we corresponded through blog posts and comments on the "Mighty Acorns" blog - named for all of the ordinary people we knew and loved in our family tree.

While we meant well, life happens, and the original Mighty Acorns sits unattended, now - its last post dated in 2009. I ran across it the other day while tinkering with my other blog, and it seemed to me that there was a lot more in there than I had remembered.  A few more pictures; a few more essays; some old Civil War poetry, and a lot more comments!

I was inspired to start it up again - but this time around, I don't want to hide my light under a bushel. I won't share what other people have shared with me without their permission, but I have a lot to say about my own research, questions, discoveries, and mysteries - and I've learned not to wait around for others (or make them wait around for me) before I go forth and do great things.

And so, like an evolving tree in a forest full of stiff competition, I'm forging ahead with Mightier Acorns. I plan to re-post some of my older essays, create some new family portraits, and maybe talk about how I do what I do in a technical sense. I already have a few ideas - historical book reviews, research techniques and technology tips, etc. - and I aim to put out something new each week. (I am including re-posts from the original Mighty Acorns blog in my definition of "new".) For now, I only plan to post my own notes and pictures - and we'll just have to see what happens.

If you're one of my previously mentioned cousins, and you're okay having me re-share any of your Mighty Acorns posts here, I'm happy to do so, but I won't post anything without your say-so. Just drop me a private note.

If we've never met (either virtually or physically) and you think we might be related, definitely drop me a private note! You never know what you can learn about the tree from other branches. Hopefully, together, we can make history together!

"History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." (Chicago Tribune, 1916).

"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do."

      - both quotes from Henry Ford

You can contact me at: callintad at gmail dot com