Are You Grilling Or Are You Barbecuing?

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Ages ago an errant stroke of lightning struck a dry woodland. The ensuing fire consumed not only the trees, but several animals too slow to escape. A curious caveman meandered into the still smoldering forest. He stopped. What was that he smelled? It smelled… “delicious” would have been the word he would have used if he could speak English.

He looked all around for the source of that compelling aroma. Amidst the pockets of remaining flames, he found it. It looked ugly, a blackened char. Yet, it was unmistakable. The sumptuous scent came from what looked like what used to be an animal.

Salivating, he grabbed it and took a big deep bite.

Then promptly spit it out. “Yeech!” How could something that smelled so good taste so bad.

But the bite revealed the hidden treasure. Beneath the charred surface the caveman saw Continue Reading “Are You Grilling Or Are You Barbecuing?”

New York State Has A Serious Gerrymandering Problem – Here’s What To Do About It, But First…

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Original 1812 drawing of the Gerrymander by Elkanah Tisdale.

Marshall Pinckney Wilder was a popular humorist who travelled the world. A favorite of the British royal family, he wrote books, appeared in movies, and always signed his correspondence “Merrily yours.” He was born in Geneva in 1859 and grew up in Rochester, where he developed his talent as a storyteller (and also dabbled in clairvoyance, which was popular in Western New York during that era).

He was named after his great-uncle, a famed phytologist in Boston.

Well, not quite.

When the Bostonian botanist came into this world in 1798, his father gave him the name “Marshall Pinckney Gerry Wilder,” in honor of John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry, the envoys to France appointed by President John Adams in 1797.

By the time he became a teenager, the name was shorted to “Marshall Pinckney Wilder.”

What happened to “Gerry”? Therein lies a tale of political intrigue and comeuppance that continues to this day.

More than a mere envoy, Elbridge Gerry stood out as a true Founding Father who eventually became the fifth Vice President of the United States. He signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He would have signed the United States Constitution, but he was one of three delegates who refused to do so on account it lacked a Bill of Rights.

So, what did he do? He became a congressman and, as such, spearheaded the effort to adopt the Bill of Rights (as the first ten amendments to the Constitution). Like George Washington, he opposed the idea of political parties.

Until France, that is.

You see, the three envoys were dispatched to iron out the Franco-American diplomatic breakdown that would come to be known as “the XYZ Affair.” Long story short, Gerry and his fellow Americans refused to bribe the French foreign minister Talleyrand. This was considered common practice in Europe, but, well, America was not Europe (especially at that time).

While Pinckney’s dad (and others) admired the envoys’ stand, the Federalists (who held the House, the Senate, and the Presidency) did not. They blamed the envoys for the failure to negotiate.

Up until then, Gerry had been staunchly non-partisan. After the Federalists vilification of him, he joined the Democratic-Republican party (the predecessor of our current Democrat party). He ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Massachusetts under that banner before finally being elected to the position in 1810.  He was reelected the following year after promoting a moderate if not bi-partisan course.

It was, however, in that second term where Gerry earned his infamous stripes. With the Democratic-Republican party in full control, Gerry showed his true partisan colors. He removed Federalist appointees from their State positions. But the worst was yet to come.

Although Massachusetts was evenly divided, the Democratic-Republicans used their power to apportion electoral district boundaries to make it more difficult for Federalists to regain the majority. The new districts they created were so contorted, Elkanah Tisdale, a well-known engraver, most likely was the person responsible for making a political cartoon lampooning the strange-shaped district. This first appeared in the March 26, 1812 Edition of the Boston Gazette.

We’ll let John Ward Dean tell the rest of the story (as he related it in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 46, published in 1892):

“Washington Allston, calling there with James Ogilvie, a lecturer on oratory, and noticing the figure, remarked to [Benjamin] Russell, the editor, ‘What an odd-looking creature is this! it looks like a Salamander.’ On which Ogilvie, quick as light, replies, ‘Why, let it be named Gerrymander, for the governor.’”

The Democratic-Republican plan, signed into law by Gerry, worked, but not for Gerry. He lost the next election. Though the Federalists had the most votes statewide, the Democratic-Republicans ended up with a three to one edge in the State Senate.

The vilified public pronounced their judgment by forcing Gerry out. He was assailed in the popular press. The May 23, 1812 Colombian Centinel (yes, they spelled it that way), quoting a Judge Story, wrote, “It would be well, however, if we could so ascertain beyond a doubt the real Father of this unnatural monster, that we might hold him up to everlasting scorn and contempt.”

Marshall Pinckney Gerry Wilder’s father took the measure one step further. According to Dean, who was quoting Wilder himself on this, “after the gerrymandering doings he lost his admiration and had the ‘Gerry’ struck out of his son’s name.”

By now, you’ve all read of our current state of Gerrymandering right here in New York State. It’s more than the usual tilting, it’s as egregious as Gerry’s was in 1812. We all know the motivations, but here’s how it hurts Monroe County especially.

Traditionally, Monroe County has had two Congressional districts. In recent years, this has meant we’ve been represented by both parties. That’s good because you never know which party will retain control of the House. By have two seats, one from each party, we’re guaranteed to have access to the majority.

If you listen to the experts, the Republicans are expected to gain control of the House following the mid-term elections. (This is a reasonable guess, given the number of Democrats who have decided not to seek reelection, the population shifting to “Red” states, and the usual party loss based on the White House incumbent.) As of now, Monroe County has only one seat (by comparison, Erie County has three) and it’s designed to be won by a Democrat.

Not good for Monroe County should the Republicans retake the house.

What’s the solution? There’s not a clear one. Basically, the majority rules, and the Democrats have a clear majority in the New York State legislature. They made a mockery of the independent bipartisan committee that was supposed to be responsible for redistricting, so you can see that’s not a viable option.

The fairest way to prevent gerrymandering is geometry-based rules. For example, every district must touch at least three other districts (two if the district is on a border) and at least two of those districts must not touch each other. In other words, each district must be a parallelogram (e.g., a square or a rectangular).

We don’t need a special commission, but we do need to prevent the redistricting abuse we’re seeing in our state.

Perhaps you should clip this column out and send it to an appropriate judge since there are now at least two cases challenging the New York State Gerrymander.

What (And Why) Is Greater Western New York?

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1779 map of Sullivan Campaign 6.18.1779-9.15.1779

1779 map of Sullivan Campaign

Believe it or not, we’re fast approaching a seminal anniversary in the history of Greater Western New York. At some point in the final days of August 1779, the first scouts of the Sullivan Expedition represented the first citizens of the new nation to step foot into what would become Greater Western New York.

They weren’t the first people in Greater Western New York. They weren’t even the first of European descent to enter the region.

They were, however, the first Americans to do so. And that is why Greater Western New York is often referred to as “America’s First Frontier.”

For those who were absent from school when they taught this, the Sullivan Expedition, Continue Reading “What (And Why) Is Greater Western New York?”

The Story of Abraham Parrish, Mendon’s First Tavern Keeper (Part III)

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1838 - Rochester in 1812 (showing first 'hotel') - Sketches of Rochester

Rochester in 1812 (showing first ‘hotel’). Source: Sketches of Rochester, 1838

Abraham Parrish had front row seats to watch his older brother Jasper become a success. And what a role model Jasper was. As a boy, Jasper had been captured by Indians in the immediate aftermath of the Wyoming Massacre in 1778, sold as a slave among various tribes, beaten mercilessly, nearly killed for a guinea when the British put a bounty on Yankee scalps, until he was finally bought by a Mohawk named “Captain Hill” for $20.29

Captain Hill so admired Jasper and Jasper so admired Captain Hill that in 1780 the Captain formally adopted Jasper in a traditional Iroquois ceremony. In turn, Jasper came to Continue Reading “The Story of Abraham Parrish, Mendon’s First Tavern Keeper (Part III)”

The Story of Abraham Parrish, Mendon’s First Tavern Keeper (Part II)

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Source: Ontario County Times, April 16, 1897

When last we left the family of Zebulon Parish, they had packed up their bags and the young’uns, including the toddler Abraham, and ventured out into the frontier wilderness of Connecticut. The family landed right smack dab in the middle of a hornet’s nest. More on that in a moment.

Abraham Parrish was born on March 30, 1772. There’s a couple of things you should know about Abraham: one which you’re already asking; and one which you probably don’t know enough to ask.

First, as you might have noticed, Abraham’s last name contains two r’s (“Parrish”) while his father (and his three oldest brothers Jacob, Nathan, and Isaac), kept the original spelling with one r (“Parish”).15 It’s not clear why.

Here’s the thing you likely don’t know: Abraham was Continue Reading “The Story of Abraham Parrish, Mendon’s First Tavern Keeper (Part II)”

Ode to a Once Mighty Oak

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And in that brief moment, its reign ended.

We don’t know how old it really was, but the centuries had exacted their toll. Despite the efforts of the valiant few, the rot that builds with age had eaten its way through the internal fabric that once supported its mighty infrastructure.

When that final gust rushed through, the great citadel had fallen. It had stood for so long that those closest to it, stunned by the fatal reality before their own eyes, could only muster an anemic disbelief.

All that incredulity could not suspend the finality that was. It was gone. Not really. But really.

*          *          *

The Seneca tribe was a fierce warrior tribe. They had to be. They guarded the “west gate” of the Iroquois Confederacy. From that position, they both protected one flank of their Continue Reading “Ode to a Once Mighty Oak”

Condemned to Repeat It: This 200+ Year Old Concept Rises Again in 2020

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“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana in his 1905 series, The Life of Reason: the Phases of Human Progress.

It’s not new. It’s been with us since George Washington ended his second term as President. You might have heard it ended once and for all during the nadir of the American experiment.

But it’s still here. And for all its association with evil, the worst of our proud heritage, people continue to embrace it like a badge of honor.

Yet, it began with such promise…

No one ever questioned George Washington. He’s our first and probably last Continue Reading “Condemned to Repeat It: This 200+ Year Old Concept Rises Again in 2020”

This is Why New York State Needs an Electoral College

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The war had been going on for the better part of a year when John Adams wrote, “The blessings of society depend entirely on the constitutions of government.” Shortly thereafter, on May 10, 1776, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution recommending the thirteen colonies “adopt such Government as shall in the opinion of the Representatives of the People, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their Constituents in particular.”

In a letter to his brother John Augustine Washington dated Philadelphia, May 31, 1776 George Washington issued this prophetic warning: “To form a new government requires Continue Reading “This is Why New York State Needs an Electoral College”

Sorry, Mr. President, It’s Not “Flee” New York, It’s “Free” Western New York

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If you’re from Greater Western New York, you love it. That makes you part of a long tradition. American patriots felt the same way during the Revolutionary War. In 1779, George Washington dispatched General Sullivan to thwart the British and their Iroquois allies based in Western New York from continuing their lethal terror attacks on the small towns and settlements along the edge of the then New York frontier. When Sullivan’s troops first laid eyes on the beautiful landscape, they immediately knew where they wanted to spend the rest of their lives: Western New York.

Why would you be any different? And yet, living in Western New York too often becomes a burden. Although not as bad as it was decades ago, outsiders continue to disrespect our region. We’ve been the butt of late-night TV jokes. Organizations routinely bypass our bounty, lured by promised riches from others. Even our own state leaders forsake us. We’ve seen this as recently as when the New York-Albany axis decided to use our Continue Reading “Sorry, Mr. President, It’s Not “Flee” New York, It’s “Free” Western New York”

Declaration of (Italian) American Independence

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“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/When he said the world was round…” So begins the lyrics of Ira Gershwin for brother George’s 1937 composition “They All Laughed.” The Gershwins wrote the song for the movie Shall We Dance, starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Frank Sinatra famously included the tune in his masterpiece Trilogy album, where he sings the closing lyrics “Who’s got the last laugh now?” with a knowing wink.

From Christopher Columbus to Frank Sinatra, it’s clear that Italians and Italian-Americans have had a tremendous impact on America. Over the next three weeks, we’ll focus on those names history books seem to have neglected.

Did you know Italian-Americans played a prominent role in the founding of America? For example, three of the first five American warships were named after Italians. These were Continue Reading “Declaration of (Italian) American Independence”