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The Obama government is being severely criticised for its failure to prevent the young Nigerian of the Christmas Day attack from flying to the United States. Some critics assume that the Kingdom of the Netherlands recently joined the American Federal union as the fifty first state, and that Amsterdam airport like Boston or Chicago is under direct control of our government. Their ethnocentrism is telling. The anger at the lapse reflects a persistent American belief: if we are not invulnerable to the misfortunes that beset other nations, we should be.

The performance of the Bush administration before 11 September of 2001 was miserable. A judge denied the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s request to listen to the telephone of one of the later 11 September attackers, on grounds that the FBI kept asking for wire tap warrants in cases it could not sustain. President Bush himself instructed his National Security Advisor, Dr. Rice, that he had heard enough of Al Quaeda’s threats and wished to hear no more.

The American combination of arrogant complacency and administrative ineptitude has historical precedents. Read more


Is There An Imperial Exit?

(this article by Prof. Norman Birnbaum ’46 was originally published in El Pais, 28 February 2010)

We know, thanks to biographers and historians (and novelists) how the United States constructed its modern empire. Now that its costs are so high, however, and the nation increasingly divided again on how to deal with the world, we Americans know neither how to keep it or withdraw from it.

After continental conquest and continuous warfare, our modern imperial epoch began in 1898, at Spain’s cost. US participation in the war of 1914-18 (like the war with Spain) provoked domestic opposition. German and Irish immigrants were instinctively dubious, agrarian populists and urban socialists were ideologically so. Still, war intensified the assimilation of the millions of Europeans who had arrived before and after the turn of the century. Wilson, the son of a Calvinist pastor, depicted the US as a new Israel—chosen to write history anew, and most Americans assented.

The US emerged from the First World War as global banker and manufacturer. The nation plunged into consumer capitalism, and Armstrong, Chaplin and Hemingway carried our culture nearly everywhere. The isolationists between the wars were not a coherent bloc. Some were motivated by ethnic resentment of the Anglo-Saxon elite, others by politial suspicion of the ruling class, others were ancestors of the later unilateralists. Unimpeded by much public attention, three very internationalist Secretaries of State from the older elite, Hughes, Kellog, Stimson, extended American power by enlisting finance and industry in the task. The military prepared assiduously for the next Great War. Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 began his Presidency as a cautious internationalist.When he succeeded in bringing the nation into war in 1941, he drew upon the banks, law firms and universities to command the new warfare state. The public, remote from the conduct of foreign policy, agreed that war was necessary to defend the economic and social substance of the nation. Read more


The Prisoner in the White House

At my request, Norman Birnbaum ’46 will be sharing some of his articles with EphBlog. Here is the first. – DK

After a year in office, the President seems—rather like most of his predecessors—a prisoner in the White House. The New York Times, not conspicuous for its irony, has just written that, other matters permitting, he hopes to do something about unemployment.

Failure to reverse it would indeed make his re-election very difficult in 2012, and is likely to result in large Republican gains in the Congressional elections of November 2010 when the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate will be at stake. The victory in the special election to choose a successor to the late Senator Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts (held exactly one year after the President’s assumption of office) of an unknown and not visibly gifted local politician who campaigned as exponent of the ordinary people’s virtues against the vices of the political elite, shocked the Democrats—who became aware of the danger too late to avert it. The President’s approval ratings in the public opinion polls are not worse than that of many of his predecessors at this period of the Presidency (at the end of January, half the public thought he was performing to their satisfaction) –but the contrast with the large expectations he evoked earlier, the returned confidence of the Republicans and demoralization and pronounced division amongst the Democrats, is very striking.

The relationship between domestic and foreign policy in American Presidencies follows no very standard pattern. In general, a President whose standing in domestic matters is high is freer to maneuver in foreign affairs. That is not always the case, and Lyndon Johnson, a very successful and major domestic reformer, knew that the Vietnam War was unwinnable but did not act on his insight because he feared being attacked as weak. Yet in 1964 he had won a very convincing victory against his opponent, Senator Goldwater (whom he charged with planning to do what Johnson promptly did in 1965, expand the war in Vietnam.) Nixon, per contra, entered the White House in 1969 with a reputation for unmitigated bellicosity, and proceeded to open relations with the People’s Republic of China (refused by the US, absurdly, since the Communists’ assumption of power two decades earlier), engaged in serious negotiations with the Soviet Union, and in effect abandoned our south Vietnamese client state to its fate. As the last President Bush became increasingly mired in what struck an American majority as an interminable and for many, unnecessary, war in Iraq he found that despite his re-election in 2004, he had no majority for his domestic priorities, permanent and structural rather than incidental reductions in expenditure for the American welfare state.

The Obama Presidential majority of November 2008 clearly sought a new beginning in our politics, but how many of the President’s voters shared his complex and differentiated foreign policy perspective is not at all clear. He took his election as a mandate to announce policies which would have been inconceivable under Bush and unimaginable had McCain won: reconciliation with the Islamic world, new beginning of cooperation with China and Russia, an end to hegemonic bullying in the western hemisphere, an invitation to the European Union to propose its own initiatives in world politics (of which it proved incapable), US cooperation in serious measures to control environmental destruction, a new US initiative to bring Israel and the Palestinians to a settlement, and negotiations with Iran on its nuclear project. Read more


Historical Perspective on Citizens United

Good essay from Prof. David Kaiser:

Political speech was free, or almost free, when the first amendment was passed, in two different ways: not only did the law now protect it, but the production and distribution of written materials (the only ones then available) was extremely cheap. In the early nineteenth century, yours truly might have started and turned out a weekly broadsheet almost as easily as I now turn out this blog. The point is not whether material like Hillary can be produced–of course it can, although it testifies to the decline of American political discourse in the last half century–the point is who will have the money to advertise it and broadcast it on cable television. Just as Anatole France remarked that the law impartially forbade both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges, the law now impartially allows David Kaiser, the heads of Citibank and Goldman Sachs, and Glenn Beck to make their views available on television to audiences of millions. The problem is that only three of them will be able to do so. The reformers of the 1900-80 era did not need rocket science to figure out that increasingly expensive modern forms of communication would obviously give incredible advantages to the rich and powerful and thus had to be regulated to give ordinary citizens a chance to be heard. A 5-4 Supreme Court majority has now thrown out a century of tradition and returned us to a form of political Darwinism (see my earlier posts on social Darwinism several years ago, easily located by a search at the top of the page.)

The current crisis in American life, I have been saying here now for five years, will lead either to a kind of New Deal revival or to a return to the Gilded Age. Karl Rove understands this and cited William McKinley as his political hero. The court just brought us immensely closer to a return to McKinley’s age.

Those like me who never have and never will abandon the New Deal principles they learned in their youth inevitably mourn the likely eclipse, for the rest of our lifetimes, of those principles. But once again my training as a European historian at least enables me to say that things could be much, much worse. Although the Republicans have frequently bent the law (most notably in 2000 and again this week), they have successfully undid the work of our parents and grandparents mainly through legal means. There is no Fascist movement or dictatorship on the horizon (although one could still emerge.) It was the America of the Gilded age to which my paternal grandfather came around 1900, making my own life possible. The liberal tradition will survive, even if will only be revived years after the Boom generation has passed from the scene. (I do not exclude the possibility that my own side might still prevail even in this crisis, but it does not look at all likely.) If the Founding Fathers managed to design a system that can preserve essential liberties and survive even severe swings to the right and left, they will still deserve our thanks.

Emphasis mine. Read the whole thing here.

The central theme of the recent book Packing the Court by Prof. James MacGregor Burns is the undemocratic and unconstitutional rise of Supreme Court power. He writes (emphasis mine):

In retrospect, the court has far more often been a tool for reaction, not progress. Whether in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century or the Gilded Age at the turn of the twenty-first, the justices have most fiercely protected the rights and liberties of the minority of the powerful and the propertied. Americans cannot look to the judicial branch for leadership.

Confronted with what he calls “unelected and unaccountable politicians in robes”, Burns proposes that the only way to break judicial power is for the democratic branches of government to challenge it, either through a constitutional amendment, or a somewhat more daring strategy:

Confronted by a hostile court repeatedly striking down vital progressive legislation, a president could declare that there is no place in a modern democracy for unelected judges to veto twenty-first-century laws. The president would announce flatly that he or she would not accept the Supreme Court’s verdicts because the power of judicial emasculation of legislation was not – and never had been – in the Constitution. The president would invite the partisans of judicial supremacy to try to write that authority into the Constitution by proposing a constitutional amendment. Through their representatives in Congress and the state legislatures, the American people would be given the choice denied them in 1803: to establish in the Constitution the power of judicial supremacy, or to reject that power. Only by this route could judicial rule be legitimated, “constitutionalized.” In the meantime, until the matter was settled, the president would faithfully execute the laws the Supreme Court had unconstitutionally vetoed.

It would be a risky strategy, an open defiance of constitutional customs and the myths and mysteries that have long enshrouded the court. Traditionalists would be outraged. Professors of law would express their concern in learned treatises. Powerful interests with a stake in the status quo – business groups, conservative lawyers, and their supporters in the political class – would spearhead a campaign of opposition. There might even be demands for impeachment. In the ensuing turbulence, though, the president would have an enormous strategic advantage. He would need only to sit tight. The burden would be on his adversaries to initiate the new and momentous amendment to the Constitution and to obtain a mandate for judicial rule. For once it would be the foes of reform, not the reformers, who would have to go through the constitutional hoops of amendment, with all the traps and delays.

Above all, it would be a test of leadership, of the president’s ability to mobilize followers behind a transformational goal, as FDR had so markedly failed to do in 1937. He would present the idea for what it was – a revolutionary challenge to judicial business-as-usual, to minority rule by a handful of judges, a fight for the Constitution as the people’s charter, not a lawyer’s contract.[…]

If judicial rule was not ratified by the people in the amending process, the Supreme Court’s exclusive grip on constitutional interpretation would be broken. Shorn of its supremacy, the court would still retain crucial tasks. It would still be called upon to interpret ambiguous statutes, adjust conflicting laws, clarify jurisdictions, and police the boundaries of federal-state power – virtually all of its present responsibilities except that of declaring federal laws unconstitutional. It would simply be brought closer to the role the Framers originally envisioned for it.

Quotation above taken from the Epilogue, “Ending Judicial Supremacy”, to Prof. Burns’ book.

Burns seems to expect that a constitutional crisis of this magnitude will occur at some point in the future, perhaps in the near future. With Citizens United, the opportunity for the democratic branches of govt. to reform judicial power may have occurred before even he would have expected it. What are the chances that the Democratic leadership in Congress and the White House will challenge the court?


Hate-filled opportunism

Brother Spotless is angry.

Go read the whole thing.


Character, from von Ranke to Vietnam (1)


from David Kaiser, “American Tragedy


Williams Online

Let’s just say that this little post of Williams on Twitter ballooned a bit, shall we?

Ideas on how better can this post be organized?


Williams on Facebook:



Event Information/Calendars:



Armistice Day: 11 November, 11:11 am, 1918…


Oh, What a Lovely War

And when they ask us, how dangerous it was,

Oh, we’ll never tell them, no, we’ll never tell them:

We spent our pay in some cafe,

And fought wild women night and day,

’Twas the cushiest job we ever had.

And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,

The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,

Oh, we’ll never tell them, oh, we’ll never tell them

There was a front, but damned if we knew where.!_What_a_Lovely_War#Stage_musical


MA resident awarded Medal of Honor today


Story here and here.

Update 09/21: Williams medal of honor recipient, William Bradford Turner ‘14, is also a member of this society, are their other Eph recipients?


Packing the Court

David Kaiser reviews the latest book by James MacGregor Burns ’39:

I want to turn to a new book covering the whole sweep of American history, one of the more remarkable that I have read recently–Packing the Court, by the political scientist James MacGregor Burns, whom I got to know during my year at Williams College. Because Burns has an encyclopedic knowledge of American history and because he has, as I mentioned last week, remained faithful to some of the beliefs of his youth in the 1930s, the book’s 259 pages come from a unique perspective and make a unique contribution. It must certainly be one of the half-dozen best books ever written by anyone in their tenth decade and is therefore quite an inspiration to yours truly. And although its conclusion will be a hard one for younger liberals to accept, they should certainly do some thinking about it.

Continue reading Kaiser’s review here

NYTimes review link for Packing the Court

Amazon link for Packing the Court

Coincidentally, I was just in a Barnes and Noble today looking for a book on the Supreme Court in general or John C. Marshall in particular. Unable to find anything on either topic in the store, I left empty handed (they did have several acres of Twilight books, along with Twilight boardgames, Twilight t-shirts, and Twilight action figures).

I’ve now ordered the Burns book from Amazon and would welcome additional recommendations for books on Supreme Court history.


Afghanistan / Vietnam

James McAllister is quoted in an article about the administration seeking advice from scholars of the Vietnam war:

James McAllister, a professor of political science at Williams College in Massachusetts who has written extensively about Vietnam, said the administration could learn a lot from Vietnam.

“American policy makers clearly see parallels between the two wars,” he said. “They know that the mistakes we made in Vietnam must be avoided in Afghanistan.”

McAllister cited analogies between the two wars:

— In both wars, security forces had an overwhelming advantage in firepower over lightly armed but highly mobile guerrillas.

— Insurgents in both cases were able to use safe havens in neighboring countries to regroup and re-equip.

—He pointed to McChrystal’s order to limit airstrikes and prevent civilian casualties, linking it to the overuse of air power in Vietnam which resulted in massive civilian deaths.

McAllister drew a parallel to another failed political strategy from Vietnam — the presidential election.

“That (’67 ballot) helped ensure that U.S. efforts would continue to be compromised by its support for a corrupt, unpopular regime in Saigon,” McAllister said.

Link to full article.


Kaiser Responds

A recent post about an interview of David Kaiser sparked a fair amount of debate, which you can read in its entirety here. Kaiser’s comments in the original interview, about the postmodernist approach to history, were criticized by Derek Catsam, among others. We were pleased to hear from Kaiser in the comments, addressing some of the criticism. I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight his commentary and some of the responses to it in a new thread (the old one has gotten a little lengthy and out of hand).

Let me just try to distinguish three types of history which are getting mixed up here:

1. The study of decisions made by governments, based upon archival research, and incorporating insofar as possible all the important non-governmental influences on those decisions. Such work also often deals with the impact of those decisions.

2. The study of social groups, including workers and their families, peasants and their families, minority groups, etc., which originally was also based on the most thorough possible archival research. Such work was certainly valuable, particularly, in my opinion, when it took care to integrate the story of those groups into broader political developments.

3. The use of isolated incidents from the past, usually focusing on non-whitemales, to make broader “theoretical” points about race, gender, and class. That is what I meant by riffs–and that kind of history, unlike (2), really is outside the bounds, in my opinion, of what history was originally designed to be. I would guess that most issues of the American Historical Review now include at least two such articles.

I hope this will help everyone clarify their thinking.

David Kaiser, Naval War College

Catsam responded (slighty edited)

I think it’s great that David Kaiser came in to weigh in, and his distinctions are useful, if mechanistic. In current social history — in the overwhelming bulk of civil rights history, for example, which is at least in part social history, though part of my problem is that these very categorizations are in very real ways false, the overwhelming majority of work comes from area 2, if such an area really does exist beyond serving as a (somewhat) useful analytic schema.[…]

I am not the world’s biggest fan of the American Historical Review. It is the “biggest” journal in the field but I cannot honestly remember the last time I read a full article in it and the AHR is a classic case of why “biggest” does not equal “best” (and why things like “impact factor” are dreadfully misleading). But Kaiser’s assertion that there are at least two articles every issue that fit his category number 3, which he has so clearly drawn as a pejorative as to be self evident to anyone reading it in isolation, seems itself a rather unnecessarily broad (and perhaps self-serving inasmuch as it allows him to “validate” his views on changes in “social history” — quotation marks intentional) swipe. My suspicion is that historians who write such articles would categorically reject the categorization of their work that Kaiser leaves us with.[…]

I think [examples of] articles would be useful, sure. But I also think there is a huge burden of proof on someone asserting that those articles represent “The use of isolated incidents from the past, usually focusing on non-whitemales, to make broader “theoretical” points about race, gender, and class.” I also might reject the premise that using historical events to draw larger conclusions is problematic. That’s actually what most historians do. In fact, it’s hard to imagine history done otherwise other than huge synthetic works. I just think his third category is hugely problematic and any attempt to cram scholarly work into that box would be futile.[…]

Titles do not tell us much. But I think they can provide a starting point — they should at least let us know if we are drawing conclusions about non-whitemales from “isolated incidents.”

The last issue of the AHR is a bit odd, because it had but one article (”Tamil Diasporas across the Bay of Bengal,” which by no measure is about an isolated incident) and then an AHR Roundtable on “Historians and Biography” that included ten contributions of about ten pages each and an “AHR Forum” on Simon Schama’s “A History of Britain.” One would have to read all of the contributions, but I think it is safe to say: Not so promising for the assertion under discussion.

So let’s go back to the TOC for the April issue:

Two Articles:
“Mistaken Identities? Olaudah Equiano, Domingo Alvares, and the Methodological Challenges of Studying the African Diaspora”
“Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept”
An “AHR Forum” on “The International 1968, Part II” with article-length pieces:
“Sons, Daughters, and Patriarchy: Gender and the 1968 Generation”
“Solidarity and Siege: The Latin American Left, 1968″
“Youth Movements: Travel, Protest, and Europe in 1968″

Now, we’d have to read the articles in full to know, but I’d like to know which these articles (never mind two an issue)one would like to argue contains “The use of isolated incidents from the past, usually focusing on non-whitemales, to make broader “theoretical” points about race, gender, and class.” The 1968 panel might be the closest, but only if one considers the global movements of 1968 to be “isolated incidents,” which would expand that label to an elasticity that would defy credibility. Let’s don’t confuse “stuff I don’t like” with some sort of fatal flaw in the profession or a subsection of the profession that happens not to overlap with our own specalties. I may not have an interest in Tamil Diasporas Across the Bay of Bengal because it is a long way from my own work. And I at most flipped through most of these articles. But I would not have the temerity to dismiss this work with the wave of a hand as a result.


Kaiser posted this earlier today:

Last year, the AHR devoted not one, but two issues to the year 1968. Those of us beyond a certain age remember some of the events of that year around the world, including:

1. The Tet Offensive, leading to a re-evaluation of US policy in Vietnam and the withdrawal of President Johnson.

2. An extraordinarily hard-fought and significant Presidential campaign, involving the assassination of a popular candidate, the emergence of George Wallace as a serious third-party candidate, and the dramatic beginning of the new Republican majority that more or less dominated US politics for the next forty years.

3. The Prague spring, a reformist-Communist movement in Czechoslovakia that seemed to offer the East bloc new hope, but was crushed by Soviet intervention.

4. The political crisis in France that was triggered by the student revolt (among other things), leading to a general strike and the sudden disappearance of President de Gaulle, who went to talk to the commander of the French Army in Germany to verify that he could count on the Army, if necessary, to maintain order. The crisis ended with a tremendous Gaullist victory in elections.

5. A student revolt in Mexico that was brutally suppressed, Tianimin-style, on the eve of the Olympics in October.

6. The first post-Berkeley major student revolt at Columbia, a harbinger of things to come over the next two years.

Now here are the titles of the articles commissioned and printed by the AHR:
AHR Forum: The International 1968, Part I
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (24 kB)
The Rise and Fall of an International Counterculture, 1960–1975
By Jeremi Suri
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (561 kB)
“1968” East and West: Divided Germany as a Case Study in Transnational History
By Timothy S. Brown
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (750 kB)
Japan 1968: The Performance of Violence and the Theater of Protest
By William Marotti
Sons, Daughters, and Patriarchy: Gender and the 1968 Generation
By Sara M. Evans
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (503 kB)
Solidarity under Siege: The Latin American Left, 1968
By Jeffrey L. Gould
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (883 kB)
Youth Movements: Travel, Protest, and Europe in 1968
By Richard Ivan Jobs
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (867 kB)

That’s right: NONE OF THE DEVELOPMENTS THAT I MENTIONED were discussed more than tangentially, it would seem, in any of these articles. One of the questions we are debating, I think, is whether the kind of focus, if you can call it that, reflected in the actual articles published is a good thing. Obviously my answer is a resounding no–yet I am quite sure that the AHR editors are very proud of the shift in emphasis which they have encouraged.

May I say quite honestly that I do not hold it against younger scholars that they are following current fashions. That’s the price of working in a college or university. That is why, sadly, serious criticism of what is happening only comes from people at the fringes of academic life like myself (and my contemporary Camille Paglia), or from people who are retired, or from long-tenured chronic malcontents (that’s a term of endearment) like Allen Kors. Even most of the holdouts within universities–the older faculty who consistently draw larger enrollments because the subject matter appeals to intelligent young lay people like those we have heard from on this forum–generally prefer to keep their mouth shut, and I can’t blame them.

David Kaiser


Postmodern riffs

David Kaiser, professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, talks about the future of traditional approaches to history and reflects on his time as a visiting professor at Williams:

Do you fear that the new methods, such as gender, are steadily replacing instead of assisting in our study of the interactions between states?

I hate to revisit past controversies but they do make my point.  One of the first major debates on H-Diplo [discussion list for academics who study foreign relations history] on these issues involved an article by Frank Costigliola about George F. Kennan’s long telegram.  Pointing out that Kennan repeatedly used the word “penetration” to describe Soviet behavior in Eastern and Western Europe in the wake of the Second World War, Costigliola argued that this was gendered language characterizing the Soviets as rapists.  In a long exchange I asked him to say whether he was actually arguing that Kennan had that in mind, or whether he was just, in effect, adapting the word to his own purposes.  I don’t think he ever clearly answered that question. And that’s a problem with post-modernist history, looking for “gendered” language and such in the past: they are not studying the past as such, not asking what words meant to those who used them.

Read more


Bring back the block parties


In the 70’s Williamstown used to host a massive Fourth of July festival. This festival included the parade, a carnival, a block party and fireworks.  The carnival, block party and the fireworks have long since been cancelled.

 Dude, where’s my country?

 For the block party, a band stand would be raised in the center of Spring Street and rock bands would play popular music. The open container law for the street was lifted and venders were allowed to sell alcohol in plastic cups. This became a later afternoon/early evening street dance for which venders opened doors and put summer sale items on the street. It made for a community celebration of our heritage that helped local business and gave young people something to do.

  We can bring this back. We can have good times from time to time.  There is nothing wrong with letting the hair down a bit, and selling things. My vision is to bring back the block party for the Fourth, and run a series of local street dances during the summer months. The street dance parties will be held in the parking lot at the bottom of Spring street, and will feature video music of popular artists, local history, and patriotic themes.

  We will have vender stands that sell goods, an ad hoc skateboard park, biking and running events with prizes (perhaps a hash run up Stone Hill), the reading of the Declaration of Independence, small historical street plays, food and drinks from all local business. The sky is the limit, and idea’s are welcome.

 Police will get overtime, venders will sell things, and the community chest will benefit through solicitation. People will have a good time. It is time we had fun again Williamstown. It is time to turn on the music.

    What events would you like to see?


Class History: 2009

Class Historian Kevin Waite ’09 kindly provided a copy of his remarks from the Ivy Exercises on June 6, 2009.

At the end of freshman year, the world came crashing down around our ears – or so we thought. In our eyes, the administration had taken away everything that was good and sweet by implementing the cluster system and depriving us of our time-honored sophomore right: Mission. We were outraged that we couldn’t all live together in a building that looks more like a juvenile correctional facility than any college dorm I’ve ever seen. We longed to congregate in its riot-proof corridors and nestle into those cold, sterile cells we called rooms. We even made some pretty clever T-shirts to memorialize our class’ great loss. They read Class of 2009 Mission: Impossible.

If only we had been so fortunate to remain the Mission Impossible class. But no, now our class shirts, if we were to make them, would read something very different: Class of 2009: Gainful Employment Impossible. Yes, thank you once-flourishing economy for hitting one of the worst tailspins of the century right when we finally need jobs. Fantastic. But in our monumentally bad timing, there is a silver lining. For starters, it gives us bragging rights over some of our parents who had to contend with the job market of the 70s. But more importantly it has provided some much-needed perspective. All of a sudden, it doesn’t seem so bad that the administration wouldn’t let us live in the collegiate equivalent of Sing Sing. And all the hiccups of the last four years, which once seemed catastrophic, now seem somewhat inconsequential, or even kind of funny. After all, when in your junior year, your college becomes the butt of a national poop joke, what can you do but laugh?

For the first eight or so months, freshman year went swimmingly – adjusting to College life, hanging out the Frosh and Odd Quads, discovering Queer Bash… and then boom: the campus turned into a B-rate horror flick. It was the attack of the caterpillars in Billsville. You probably could have crossed the entire campus without setting foot on pavement or grass – that’s how thick the blanket of caterpillars was that spring.

Then the surreal, got surreal-er when Swedish pop sensation and self-styled Pleasureman, Gunther invaded the Purple Valley. I have no idea how we convinced such a complete hedonist to visit our small liberal arts college in the frigid valley of Boondocksville, Mass. but we did. Expecting to find “the sexiest College ever,” Gunther instead got about 200 sleep-deprived type A students, eager to let off a little steam in Goodrich. Maybe he thought we meant ASU when we said Williams College. But we did not disappoint. As if to justify ourselves and prove to Gunther that even small colleges can bring the noise, we broke a church.

The breaking of the Goodrich floor came on the heels of a Spring Street fire that destroyed the beloved Purple Pub, and suddenly it seemed as if Williamstown was as destructible as Richmond in 1865. (And now I’ve hit my College-mandated limit of one awful Civil War joke.) Then, it took over two years to convert the charred building into a massive cement crater, conveniently timed to coincide with graduation. Now all the parents can see how the bottom of the Village Beautiful became the Village Chernobyl. But limited to one bar, we made do like the resourceful Williams students we are, and even made some new friends in the process – like 28-year old townies.

But these four years have been marked by far more than breaking and burning buildings. When racist graffiti appeared on a Willy E white board, the campus responded with the Stand With Us Movement. And this year, members of our class led the school in Claiming Williams, a highly successful day of talks, panels and performances centered on issues of discrimination and intolerance. Athletically our class was dominant. We brought home a number of national titles, while our football seniors never lost a game to Amherst in their careers. And no graduating senior has seen us lose a Homecoming game while enrolled as a student.

Now we have the privilege of graduating with Morty. And what took him 20 years, most of us have managed to do in only four.

Those four years have been challenging, funny, exciting, sad, fulfilling, and even incendiary. But at the end of it all, Class of 2009, I think we can agree, we’ve made some great history together.

It would be fun to collect these from past years. Does anyone have a copy that we can post?


Williams Has Too Many ‘Nice Boys’: Background

For those of you who have been reading the posts entitled, “Williams Has Too Many Nice Boys,” the genesis for the idea of my Senior Honors Thesis (The Concept of the Gentleman at Williams College: 1929-1939) started when I applied to Williams. In the course of wrapping things up after my Admissions interview with Phil Smith, my father casually asked, “So, is Williams still a playboy school?”

You would have thought a bomb had gone off. Phil got really animated and cited statistic after statistic (average combined SAT scores of 1300, 60% of students from public high schools, on and on), arguing that Williams was academically elite and no longer the school of the gentleman’s C. I remember thinking, “Wow, now that was an interesting over-reaction.” At the time, I knew nothing about the history of Williams, and when I asked my father later about his question, he explained that when he went to Brown in the late 1930’s, Williams had a reputation as a rich boy’s school, much like Amherst, where his brother had gone, and he was just trying to understand how much it had changed.

Read more


Williams Has Too Many ‘Nice Boys’: Part 3

What follows is an excerpt from The Concept of the Gentleman at Williams College: 1929-1939, my Senior Honors Thesis in History. Part 2 is here.

Because the reported speech was so vague, people read their own meanings into Dennett’s speech. Consequently, his alumni address brought forth many different characterizations of Williams students and many different reactions to the speech: some of the people who wrote Dennett were sure he was referring to student snobs, and they applauded him for wanting to change the college’s character; others felt that he was against private school graduates, and they angrily wanted to preserve the character of the clientele. But all of the correspondents, whether in a derogatory or an admiring manner, spoke of the preponderance of “gentlemen” at Williams — wealthy, well-mannered, upper class students.

In an editorial, the Boston Herald deftly described the type of student that everyone noticed at Williams, and expressed surprise at wanting to have fewer of them:

Not only are graduates of ‘our best preparatory schools’ an adornment to any campus, with their well-washed faces and their studiously careless attire, but they are also usually well-mannered, urbane, and responsive to intellectual and aesthetic stimulation.

They provide a tone to college which no amount of Gothic architecture or zealously cultivated ivy can apply. Nor is the pleasant fact to be overlooked that their papas and mamas occasionally surprise the faculty — often just before examination time — with a check for a swimming pool, a baseball cage, or a new set of Dickens.

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Williams Has Too Many ‘Nice Boys’: Part 2

What follows is an excerpt from The Concept of the Gentleman at Williams College: 1929-1939, my Senior Honors Thesis in History. Part 1 is here.

Headmasters of the lesser known preparatory schools also quickly wrote to President Dennett. Wilson Parkhill, a Williams alumnus and headmaster of the oldest private boys’ school in America — Collegiate School — sent a letter inquiring what Williams wanted in regard to future students. He pointed out that out of a graduating class of twenty-three students, for or five had wanted to go to Williams. After the speech,

two of them are going to Dartmouth, one to Amherst, one to Harvard, and the other is undecided as to just what he will do. They are the best boys in the school — not the ‘nicest’, particularly, but high type. When such a thing as this happens, it makes me think a little.

To these headmasters President Dennett wrote long replies, rebutting their criticisms and explaining what he had meant to say. According to Dennett, the naming of private schools other than Hotchkiss was “sheer fabrication by some unknown reporter.” Furthermore, the newspaper account had been inaccurate in other places. He had said that Williams was not about to step down its work for the high school student, and had also observed that preparatory school students were generally well-mannered and were pleasant to have around since they gave few disciplinary problems.

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Williams Has Too Many ‘Nice Boys’: Part 1

A common topic on Ephblog is student diversity–how to foster it, its interrelationship with financial aid, the impact of international students, and so on. In the 1930’s, such discussions were a lot less nuanced. During the Great Depression, the big diversity question was, “Should we admit more public high school students?”

What follows is an excerpt from my Senior Honors Thesis in History: The Concept of the Gentleman at Williams College: 1929-1939. This is the first chapter, where I talk about the fallout from President Tyler Dennett musing out loud that Williams had too many prep school students. The firestorm that resulted shows how far Williams has come in 75 years.

Read it and enjoy. It’s quite a story.

On March 11, 1937, an article on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune carried the headline: “Dennett Regrets Williams Has So Many ‘Nice Boys.’” The Herald Tribune went on to explain:

Tyler Dennett, president of Williams College, declared today his fears that Williams was growing less and less representative of the American people because its students run ‘almost uniformly to the “nice boy” type.’

‘My idea of a college community is that it should be a cross-section of American life,’ Mr. Dennett told the Williams Alumni Association of Boston, explaining that Williams’s ‘nice boys’ came almost exclusively from ‘good’ schoools like Hotchkiss, Kent and Deerfield.

‘We need more high-school graduates, but it is difficult to get them,’ he asserted. ‘We step down our courses in the freshman class, but our standard is, nevertheless, hard for the high-school graduate because of his poorer preparation…[sic] I wish we knew better how to do this sort of thing.’

So, according to the newspaper story, President Dennett had not only subtly insulted the college he headed, but also insulted secondary schools, both private and public. In his mind, Williams College accepted and taught only “nice boys” — in the vernacular, snobby, rich preppies who sat around and contented themselves with a gentleman’s C — while private schools turned out these decadent students and public high schools gave their students poor academic preparation for college.

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Eph’s Libraries – Lawrence Hall

Alum Steve Satullo, Class of 1969, has been writing about the libraries of Williams. This is the first post in a series about his histories. Please go read the entire entry; your interesting passages may not match mine. I will be excerpting the other pages on the site as well. My interest comes from being a student member of the Stetson-Sawyer committee, but I hope general readers might find this slightly interesting.

The single quotation most associated with the history of Williams College is James Garfield’s opinion to the effect: “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” Less often noted is that his remarks were made — not so epigraphically — in last-ditch defense of Hopkins at an alumni dinner at Delmonico’s in 1871, debating whether the venerable President of the College ought to be ousted after 35 years, for failing to revive the College’s fortunes following the decimation of the Civil War, for lax administration, and for being just too old and out of touch to respond to a world in the throes of immense change. Within four months, Hopkins had resigned as president, though he continued to teach at Williams for another 15 years.

The college’s first library was in the 3rd floor or West College, and was really nothing more than a walk-in closet with very limited access. Griffin Hall then became the next location of a book repository.

One cold day in January 1846 the president of Williams was enjoying a drive through Boston with Amos Lawrence, the millionaire merchant-manufacturer and philanthropist who four years before had decided to spend his declining years translating his fortune into good works. Did Hopkins want anything for the college, Lawrence wondered. No, the Williams president could not think of a thing. The next day, however, he remembered that the trustees had voted to build a library if it could be done for $2500. He then told Lawrence, yes, come to think of it, the college had been thinking about building a library; perhaps Mr. Lawrence might be interested. (Fred Rudolph, p.175 of Mark Hopkins, I think.)

“Franklin Carter took a fresh look at the library in 1882 and found it deficient in every department. […] Then after securing $40,000 in funding, Carter presided over the addition of two new wings to the Lawrence library.” (RCL, p.106)

The new wings allowed the library to expand study space and access, with the reading room now open for 60 hours a week, including Sunday for the first time. The college library had finally become “an efficient educating power,” according to distinguished professor Arthur Latham Perry. But even at that, it was barely five years before further expansion was being considered, but never realized. The chapel room in Griffin Hall had to be converted to library space in 1904, as were areas of Goodrich Hall, so the libraries of the College would soon need another new home of their own…..


Best Eph wrestler ever?

wrestling late 40s

The best Williams College Wrestler of all time to date is Bob Koster, 4th in D1 Nationals @ 157 in 1957.

Yes! Ephblogs own Frank Uible had a memory that captured history, forever moving the goal post.  Great job Frank. This is an outstanding item for an update on the Eph wrestling webpage.

Follow the PDF to the brackets for 157lbs and you can see the individual match results. You can almost feel Koster in there… slugging it out in the toughest college tournament in sports…

   Is Koster alive? Anyone with information on how Koster got to the tournament please comment. Frank’s story is great stuff- if you have amplifying information that can be put into the historical record- that would be great! I am pretty sure you could not just walk in off of the street and start slugging it out with the men from Iowa, so how Koster qualified, has to be an interesting matter for the historical record.


Coming Out @ Williams in 1972

Like The Disciplinary Record of Mr. William Lowndes Yancey, this entry comes to us from Perspectives: A Williams Anthology, edited by Frederick Rudolph ‘42.

The question is how has the College’s gay population been able to develop an identity?

“Well, some write graffiti on bathroom walls,” answers Roy (a pseudonym). “The men’s room in the basement of Stetson Hall, for instance, has had a good one for some time: ‘Gay, young, and goodlooking’ I think it says, plus a name and telephone number. One of the stalls in a Bronfman lavatory is also a reliable place for choice tidbits of local gay news and propositions.”


Has he been able to explore in Williamstown?

“Not in the least. The students here are really uptight to conform to heterosexual mores. If there’s just the slightest hint that things aren’t on the straight and narrow, ostracism, at best, is the result. The lumber-jacket, macho reputation of the fraternity days still fits.”

He hesitated, then qualified his response.

“I guess it’s a product of the Williamstown environment. If we were in or near a metropolitan area, things would be a lot different. First, you can get some degree of anonymity in a city to help you come out.”

Come out?

“That’s a gay slang term. A homosexual can have clandestine sexual experiences without ever having to come to grips with being a member of an oppressed, socially unorthodox minority. That’s because he’s not readily visible to the community like, say, a black person is; the homosexual himself is the only person who can show his neighbors that he belongs to the gay minority. ‘Coming out of the closet’ refers to the person who consciously identifies himself with that group. It’s like developing a black consciousness or a Jewish consciousness or what have you.”

Much has changed since “Roy” was at Williams. The whole thing can be found on the web here, courtesy of Daniel Pinello, the author of the article. Additionally commentary is here, but will only make sense after you read the entire first article.

In answer to Sophmom’s questions in the comments,
Professor Rudolph was Mark Hopkins Professor of History, and a former college marshall. He is and was a historian of the college and of general liberal arts curriculum, producing works such as Mark Hopkins and the Log, of which I have read excerpts for class.

Roy went on to graduate magna cum laude, with highest honors in American Civilization (Professor Rudolph chaired the program), and practiced law in New York as a partner in his own firm. Dan is currently a professor at The City University of New York. The article was the front page story of the 10/28/71 edition of the Williams Advocate.

Another post on the effects of the article will follow in a few days.


The Disciplinary Record of Mr. William Lowndes Yancey, Non-Graduate in the Class of 1833

From Perspectives: A Williams Anthology, edited by Frederick Rudolph ’42.

By any contemporary understanding of the meaning of privacy and privileged information, the Williams Collegedisplinary record of William Lowndes Yancey, Non-graduate in the Class of 1833, is revealed here in violation of Yancey’s human rights. […]

  • 2/23/31 – Resolved that Yancey be fined a dollar [$25.00-ish considering inflation] & recieve his first warning, for going out of town without leave, for getting intoxicated, & for using profane language.
  • 3/9/31 – Yancey was fined five dollars for playing cards.
  • 4/13/31 – Yancey was fined fifty cents for breaking glass.
  • 4/20/31 – Yancey, for disturning a religious meeting last Sabbath evening, & for getting intoxicated on Monday, was suspended till the commencement of the next fall term.

There’s more in the book, but this should give you an idea of Mr. Yancey’s relationship with Williams. He later returned, left after incurring fines for missing prayers, returned again, and then left once more for South Carolina.

Why does this matter? Well, our misbegotten Eph was to become “William Lowndes Yancey, an American leader of the Southern secession movement. Williams Professor Charles Keller hypothesized the “Griffin Hall” theory of the Civil War, because if Yancey had not left Williams, it is entirely conceivable that American history in this time could have unfolded entirely differently.


Spoken Up-Summary #1

This post is a summary of a discussion on “Speak Up” . It was inspired by LG’s first comment in the thread and contains some wonderful anecdotes about the takeover of Hopkins Hall, the first female Ephs, and a bit of history on early Catholicism at Williams.

Feel free to add to the discussion if inspired. Read more


Censorship: Now and Then? Then and Now?

Parent ‘12 wants your views on the extent to which censorship may take place or may have taken place on campus and/or on blogs, either self-imposed or through official channels

Two recent posts November 17,  one on an WSO discussion and the other on the Black Caucus at Chapin raised this issue.

Parent ‘12 invites your comments and your history:

Assuming that Williams was much more conservative in the fifties than it is today, how much has the campus changed regarding censorship?

And what do readers from various campus eras think about censorship, either self-imposed or by the college then v now?

Speak out!


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