Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

Tonight, the country is focused on the East Coast.  And that’s as it should be.  The storm that hit (and continues to pummel) has devastated parts of that region and left an incredible mess for lots of people to try and clean up.  Some of the images bring to mind the tsunami that struck Japan not quite two years ago.  So tonight, we’ll do a little bit of homage to the Big Apple.

Let’s talk about Ben Bailey and Cash Cab, since its home is New York City.

Now when you first think of game shows, your mind’s eye might conjure up images of a fancy set with a pretty hostess.    Maybe there’s a wheel that gets spun by some contestants, or maybe there are prizes on which people bid.  We might hear Johnny yell, “Come on down!!”  Or maybe it’s doors and deals that flash before you.  You can name that tune in just seven notes.  You want big bucks and no whammies.  You can be a millionaire.  What you see is a high-dollar production.

Cash Cab takes place in a taxi.  It’s a minivan taxi and its high-dollar production is limited to a series of small cameras placed throughout the taxi’s interior, a “video bonus” monitor, and a cool light panel mounted in the roof.

And game shows always have a host.  It’s usually a guy with a coat and tie.

Cash Cab has Ben Bailey.  Bailey, who was born on October 30, 1970, is a stand-up comedian turned game-show host extraordinaire.  He wears a shirt and jeans and looks to be the farthest thing from a traditional host.

Unsuspecting people climb into his cab, which then explodes with lights and music and Ben saying, “Welcome to the Cash Cab…it’s a game show that takes place right here in my taxi.”  The show is really just a very up-to-date (and very entertaining) version of Trivial Pursuit.  As contestants are driven to their destination, Ben asks trivia questions.  Every correct answer wins the group money.  Incorrect answers earn a strike.  If a question or two is particularly challenging, contestants can either phone a friend for help or use a “street shout-out”, where a person on the street has the ability to help.  But be careful!…three strikes and Ben pulls the cab over and kicks everybody to the curb.

There is also the fun “red-light challenge”.  If the Cash Cab reaches its destination, the contestants can either take their winnings or risk it all on a single double-or-nothing video bonus question.

The premise is simple, but it’s incredibly entertaining to watch.  Ben Bailey is charming, witty, and really gracious with the folks that get in his cab, expecting nothing more than a ride.

Cash Cab is a great trivia show built on a totally unsuspecting premise (a cab ride), and Ben Bailey is the perfect host.  Kudos to the Discovery Channel for running with the idea.

Happy Birthday, Ben Bailey!!

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The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 may have officially signaled the end of America’s fight for freedom with Britain, but in the Colonies, there were still battles being fought.  Those that had backed the cause of freedom took a very dim view of the Tories (or Loyalists), whose allegiances remained more strongly with Britain.  And now that the war was concluded, there was throughout America a wave of anti-British, anti-Tory sentiment – a sort of pent-up backlash against those that supported the losing side.

This was especially true in New York City.  The Big Apple – which, while a sizable city in the 1780s, was still a very Small Apple by today’s standards – had probably been the most “Tory-ized” city in the Colonies.  The city’s citizens were, in general, strongly loyal to the British when fighting broke out, and it was very quickly captured by the British.  As we know, a good portion of the city was burned at that time, though no one knows with certainty which side was responsible for striking the match.

Colonists that stood for independence from Britain felt compelled to flee the city, leaving behind homes, property, and possessions, which were subsequently confiscated by the British military.  New York City remained a British / Loyalist stronghold throughout the war.  It was also something of a prison camp, as ships moored in the East River served as jails for captured American soldiers.  Conditions in these prison boats were appalling.  Disease, malnutrition, and general mistreatment aboard these ships led to the deaths of more than eleven thousand Patriots.

When hostilities ended with Britain, they began anew when New York Patriots returned to their city.  Many found their homes badly damaged or destroyed and their possessions plundered.  Bones of dead Patriots littered the shores of the East River (and would continue to do so for years).  And since the British military was gone, most of the fallout landed on those Loyalist citizens remaining.

Persecution broke out against the Loyalists as their opponents vented their rage in a search for vengeance.  Some were killed, more were tarred and feathered, and all were affected by various laws that were passed against them.

There were some who argued for moderation.  Much could be said about how a victorious people treated its vanquished enemy.  Many countries around the world had very good relations with British subjects, and might take a dim view on their mistreatment, which could affect future diplomacy and trade.

But for now, anger won out.  The New York legislature passed laws allowing the seizure of Tory estates.  There were laws that allowed returning homeowners to sue their Tory occupiers for any damages.  Legislation robbed Tories of the ability to work, stuck them with heavy taxes, and took away many of their basic rights.  While some of these laws may have made some sense, many were passed simply as acts of retribution…or worse, authored by those who found a way to gain financially at Tory expense.

And on May 12, 1784, the legislature passed a law that rescinded the voting rights of all Tories for two years.  Many returning New Yorkers rejoiced at the measure, but others (besides the Loyalists) were horrified.  They pointed to the Treaty of Paris itself, which called for both sides to “forget all past misunderstandings and differences.”  But even more specific, one of the main points of the Treaty was as follows:  “The Congress of the Confederation will “earnestly recommend” to state legislatures to recognize the rightful owners of all confiscated lands “provide for the restitution of all estates, rights, and properties, which have been confiscated belonging to real British subjects [Loyalists].”  Voting restrictions were a direct violation of the Treaty.

But still the legislation had passed.  The war may have been over, but the fighting certainly was not.

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It wasn’t the White House, because it didn’t yet exist.  It was the Capitol building, because it didn’t yet exist, either.  And it wasn’t even Washington, D.C. because, well, that property still belonged to the states of Maryland and Virginia.  But when we think of a Presidential inauguration, all of those places are usually top of mind.  In 1789, however, they were completely out of mind.  So New York City provided the locale, and City Hall provided the venue for the very first Presidential inauguration.

George Washington was a very nervous man; probably way more nervous than when he had spoken his wedding vows.  He had been unanimously nominated to lead a new country with a new charter and a completely new form of government.  He had spent the winter talking about how he was unqualified to lead, even while the country believed, almost without exception, that he was the most capable man to do so.  His wife, Martha, didn’t really look forward to being First Lady.  In fact, in his biography of the First President, Ron Chernow writes that Mrs. Washington “talked about the presidency as an indescribable calamity that had befallen her.

Regardless of feelings, there was no backing out now.  Vice President Adams, in front of the First Congress, turned to the President-elect and said, “Sir, the Senate and the House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the constitution.

Washington stepped out onto the balcony shortly after noon on April 30, 1789 to an immense roar and took the oath.  Though not required, a committee thought it appropriate, at the eleventh hour, to have the President place his hand on a Bible.  But where to find one?  In the end, a local Masonic Lodge provided its Masonic Bible and Washington was administered the oath.

Then the President addressed the crowd.  Again, this was not required by the Constitution, but it seemed right.  Washington’s original speech, written by David Humphreys, spent too much time defending his decision to accept the Presidency.  It spent too much time talking about his faith in the American people (not necessarily a bad thing).  It spent too much time downplaying any form of dynasty (Washington was childless, after all).  It delved too close (and again, at too great a length) to legislative matters for executive branch comfort.  In fact, at seventy-three pages, it spent too much time on everything.

When Washington sent the speech to James Madison for his thoughts, he promptly tossed it out and wrote a much more succinct address that steered clear of legislative issues, which the President readily accepted and delivered.

Washington had become a household name in the Colonies during the French and Indian War.  He had become the hero of the American Revolution.  He had been a calming force (though he barely spoke) at the critical and sometimes contentious Constitutional Convention.  And now he was the President, chosen by the people (by a wide margin) and the Electoral College (by unanimous consent).

Recommended Reading: Washington – A Life

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“A little after noon on January 8, 1790, George Washington climbed into his cream-colored coach and rode off to Federal Hall behind a team of four snow-white horses.  In its sparsely worded style, the Constitution mandatd that the president, from time to time, should give Congress information about the state of the Union, but it was Washington who turned this amorphous injunction into a formal speech before both houses of Congress, establishing another precedent.”  Ron Chernow, “master” of Alexander Hamilton, penned those words in his biography of our first President, which was just recently released and is ready for your absorption.

In today’s world, with 220+ years of tradition to back us up, the State of the Union speech is something to which I look forward every year…to not watching.  I suppose it’s because I’ve become jaded to a process that has become so complicated and so expensive (to say nothing of being so mired in unrecoverable debt) that I no longer care to sit for 90 minutes and listen to the Commander-in-Chief talk about spending additional billions (or more) to assist us in our “pursuit of happiness”.  My dad has said many, many times that “everything translates to bucks”, and every word from a President’s lips (nowadays, at least) sounds to me suspiciously like a cash register ringing.

But in 1790, it wasn’t quite that way.  Oh, there was money that needed to be spent, but it wasn’t due to massive bloat in government.  It wasn’t caused by a debt so deep that simply paying on the interest was nearly impossible.


It was more about getting an actual government started.  Everything was new.  Chernow writes that everything (including the protocol for this first State of the Union Address) “still had an improvised feel.”  There was no precedent to follow, because new precedent was being set as the sun rose on each new day.  And President Washington talked hopefully about each step forward, desirous that would make the country stronger and more prosperous.

There was joy for North Carolina’s entrance into the Union.  She had rejected statehood in 1788, but voted to join in November of the following year.  He talked of the need to establish credit and spur economic growth, hinting at Hamilton’s upcoming report (which I hope to discuss next week) and accompanying financial program.  Washington spoke of national defense which, along with the Revenue Cutter service (to be started later that year), had some folks already worrying about government expansion and intervention.  Improved learning and a proposal for a national university also had a place in an “Address” that was both brief and to the point.

And then it was done.  The legislators stood up, Washington bowed, and stepped down.

Recommended Reading:  Washington – A Life – Thanks to Martin over at What Would the Founders Think for a review that pushed me over the edge to purchase this book.  If I can ever get Madison’s biography finished…

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“I regret that I have but one life to live for my country.”

When I was in grade school, the extent of my knowledge about Nathan Hale was limited to just three things.  That he was captured by the British during the American Revolution, that he was hanged, and the words above were the last he spoke before the hangman’s noose did its deadly work.

I’m quite a bit older, and I still don’t know much about the man.  But I don’t think I’m the exception.  Nathan Hale died at just 21 years of age, and lived in a time when record-keeping was nothing like it is now.  So information is sparse, and what we have is sketchy.  There are no portraits of Hale, so we really don’t know what he looked like.  The statues formed in his honor?…they’re pretty much artist interpretations of what his appearance may have been.  His famous last words…the ones that made him famous that I learned at an early age?…people don’t actually know if he said them.

So what do we know?

Nathan Hale was a Captain in the Continental Army, and as the British worked to capture New York City in 1776, the 21-year-old volunteered to go behind British lines and spy on their movements.  That was early September.  And as we know, General Washington and the Continental Army were forced to leave and as they did, a fire broke out that burned a quarter of the city.

It was never determined if the fire was an act of nature, or an accident, or if it was deliberately set.  But the British believed that it was the work of rebel activity, and rounded up a couple hundred potential suspects.  One of them was Hale.

And apparently, it didn’t take them long to figure out he was a spy.  And if we recall the case of Major John André, the penalty for spying was death.  But unlike André, there was almost no delay in carrying out Hale’s sentence.  On September 22, 1776 (just one day after the fire and his arrest), Nathan Hale was hanged.

It’s pretty clear that the young man made some kind of statement before the deed was done.  And several accounts have him saying something at least close to the quote we all know.  But those may not be his exact words, however much they’ve been immortalized.  Still, Hale seems to have been a daring young man.  And he was certainly willing to risk the one life he could live in the service of his country.

So whether or not the statement is 100% correct, it is appropriate, because there are few deeds more noble than that.

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We’ll keep it brief this evening.

It was a foggy morning in New York City.  Of course, its proximity to water means that fog is not an uncommon occurance.  It’s just part of the deal.  The morning of July 28, 1945 was no exception.  Visibility in some places was near zero.

As the clocks rolled toward 10:00am, Lt. Col. William Smith was flying his B-25 Mitchell into foggy New York.  More at home carrying bombs and bullets, the light bomber was instead carrying a couple of passengers on a routine transport mission from Boston.  Seeking to land at LaGuardia Airport, Smith was advised by the tower that visibility was very poor.

Now soldiers, even those in the Air Force, spend their entire career taking orders.  They’re told what to do, where to do it, and when to do it.  And a soldier’s response is generally, “Yes, sir!”  If a soldier fails to obey orders, they’re usually punished.  In Lt. Col. Smith’s case, the control tower was not a superior officer.  But a recommendation from the tower is, in my opinion, pretty much an order to be followed.  I think it’s particularly true when the weather is bad and/or visibility is also bad.

Lt. Col. William Smith didn’t see it that way.  But then, there were several things he didn’t see in the fog, one of which was the Empire State Building.  Disregarding the tower’s warning, Smith attempted to land anyways, got disoriented, and flew his Mitchell into the upper floors of the Empire State Building’s north side.  He and his two passengers were killed, as were eleven others in the skyscraper.

One of the miraculous survivors was Betty Lou Oliver, a 20-year old elevator operator on the 80th floor.  Injured in the crash, she was put on an elevator to be lowered.  But as the doors closed, the cables (now weakened) snapped, and she dropped 75 floors, where she crashed in the basement…and lived almost 70 years to tell the tale.

If I’m ever a pilot (and none of you have to worry, because I won’t be), I will always heed the control tower’s advice.

NOTE:  Somehow, I got confused on the dates and neglected to publish this piece on time.  My apologies.

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During the American Revolution, New York City was very much a center for British sympathizers.  That’s not especially surprising, as we’ve mentioned it on a couple of occasions.  And what’s more, the violence and persecution (I think the term is appropriate here) against them was widespread, as the pro-independence Colonists there had little trouble finding Loyalists to torment.

So when General George Washington arrived on the scene in April of 1776 to oversee military preparations, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that the Loyalists might target him in order to exact a bit of revenge.  The British, still stinging from the loss of Boston in March, probably would have welcomed a change of leadership at the head of the Continental Army.

On June 21, 1776, a plot to convince Patriot soldiers to defect to the British was uncovered.  It was orchestrated by William Tryon, New York’s former governor, who had been ousted from his position by the Patriots.  David Matthews, New York City’s current mayor and a Tory, was accused of funding the operation, which involved bribes to Continental Army soldiers.  And while it was never completely proven, Matthews spent some time in prison.

But most shocking was the discovery that members of Washington’s guard, most notably, Sergeant Thomas Hickey, were involved.  Having been assigned to his position in March, he was caught passing counterfeit money.  While in prison, he told a fellow soldier that his crimes were part of a much larger plot.

Evidence seems to suggest that included in the plans was the capture or assassination of General Washington and other members of his staff.  There doesn’t seem to be 100% consensus on whether a plot to kill the General actually existed.  Some historians seem to think so, while others are doubtful.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton (which I’ve quoted dozens of times), Ron Chernow writes of a definite assassination plot.  So I’m inclined to believe that one existed.

How far-reaching such a plan reached is hard to say, but we know for sure that only Thomas Hickey’s neck would feel the bite of the hangman’s rope, as his execution was carried out a week later.

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Back in February, we looked at Aaron Burr’s collaboration with Alexander Hamilton to form the Manhattan Company.  This privately held entity would take on the task of bringing fresh water to the residents of New York City.  It was believed that fouled water was to blame for the devastating outbreaks of yellow fever, which was partially true, especially if you factored in the myriads of mosquitoes that lived there and actually spread the disease.  If you want, you can go back and read it for some background.

The need was great, the solution seemed reasonable, and Hamilton (a man often at odds with the ambitious Burr) had given a splendid presentation.  Milton Lomask, in the first book of his two-volume biography of Aaron Burr, went so far as to say that “…no member of the committee of six worked harder to make possible Aaron Burr’s upcoming triumph in the New York legislature.”

But Aaron Burr was lying to everyone about the Manhattan Company.  Burr cared nothing about water, nor about piping it to residents of New York City (or any other city for the matter), nor about combating yellow fever.

Aaron Burr wanted a bank.

As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had pushed for the first National Bank way back in 1790.  It was a very controversial move with no shortage of detractors.  But the bank had been approved in early 1791 with a 20-year charter.  If you recall, over-speculation in the bank’s stock had led to the first “stock market crash” late that summer.

But that was 1791, and time had passed.  President John Adams was now struggling through his first term, and Hamilton had long since stepped down as Treasury Secretary.

The banks, however, were still around, and as they were products of Hamiltonian thinking, they were predominantly controlled by Federalists.  Both the Bank of New York and the local branch of the Bank of the United States (the lone banks in New York City) were greatly disliked by Republican businessmen, who believed they were discriminated against when it came to lending.  And while there seems to be precious little evidence that such exclusions persisted, the perception was clearly there.

Alexander Hamilton opposed the idea of state banks, but not simply because they weren’t a Federalist idea.  With his keen financial sense, he realized that local banks would become competitive for clients and, in their zeal for the most business, would dilute credit and resort to suspect lending practices to gain more accounts.  This could ultimately lead to a melt-down of the financial system…doesn’t this sound vaguely familiar 210 years later?

Anyways, when the New York legislators saw the final bill, they failed to notice that Burr had removed all language dealing with reparing streets damaged by laying pipes and providing water for fire protection.

The Manhattan Company had become a front company.  In place of the removed text, Burr added the proviso “that it shall and may be lawful for the said company to employ all such surplus capital as may belong or accrue to the said company in the purchase of public or other stock or in any other monied transactions of operations.”

Ron Chernow (who’s probably going to demand royalties for as many times as I’ve quoted him, but his biography of Hamilton is that good) writes, “The ‘surplus capital’ loophole would allow Burr to use the Manhattan Company as a bank or any other kind of financial institution.”

And on April 2, 1799, New York Governor John Jay unwittingly signed into law the creation of a bank able to compete with the Bank of the United States.

Aaron Burr had pulled off “the perfect crime”, and had done so in brilliant fashion.  He manipulated his brother-in-law’s idea about bad water, used Alexander Hamilton as his mouthpiece, and duped New York’s legislature and governor.

Hamilton, of course, was furious.  Calling Burr on his hypocrisy, he said, “I have been present when he has contended against banking systems with earnestness and with the same arguments that Jefferson would use…Yet he has lately by a trick established a bank, a perfect monster in its principles, but a very convenient instrument of profit and influence.”

But anger wasn’t limited to the Federalists alone.  The general public was aghast at Burr’s lies and, as he was up for re-election in the Assembly, they shunned him at the ballot box.  Even some Republicans, who may have admired his cheek and cunning, disapproved of the subterfuge and deception he perpetrated on them as fellow legislators.  And what of Dr. Joseph Browne, Burr’s brother-in-law?…the doctor who desperately wanted to help fight yellow fever?  He wrote to Burr, “I expect and hope that enough will be done to satisfy the public and particularly the legislature that the institution is not a speculating job.”  He would hope in vain as, by the time the company went public, all pretense to a water company had been dropped completely.

The summer of 1799 would see yellow fever rage through New York, and impure water being given to sick residents.

It’s little wonder that, less than two years later, when Jefferson and Burr were deadlocked in the Presidential election, Hamilton unabashedly wrote, “As to Burr, there is nothing in his favour…He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country.”

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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It seems like every major city has, at some point, a major fire to go with it.  London had one, Chicago had one, and Washington, D.C. had one.  San Francisco had one, but that that more to do with the big earthquake that preceded it.  Still, fire is fire, and when it rages uncontrolled, it’s a pretty devastating experience.

Citizens of the small community of New York City also experienced a fire.  I say “small community” because, by today’s standards, the city was more townish in size.  But by 1776 standards, it was pretty large.  It was also about to be occupied by the British, so there’s been some speculation that Colonials or members of Washington’s Continental Army set the blaze.  And the General certainly had motive.

He didn’t have the manpower or firepower to stop the British from taking the city, so he packed his troops and headed for the higher ground of Harlem Heights.  There certainly was discussion amongst his staff about burning the city to deny its supplies and warehouses to the enemy, but that doesn’t seem to have been Washington’s style.  At any rate, history doesn’t really name a culprit.

History does show that on September 21, 1776, the fires started.  Fanned by high winds and fueled by closely packed wooden structures, they quickly overwhelmed any defensive measures taken.  The populace could do little but grab what they could, run into the streets, and watch the conflagration, which burned all day, all night, and into the 22nd.  All told, one quarter of the city’s homes and businesses were destroyed.

In our minds, that sounds like a massive fire, but that’s because we think in a 21st-century mindset…New York City…10 million people.  In 1776, one fourth of the buildings was 500 buildings.  A lot, yes, but not the destruction our mind’s eye might conjure.

The British certainly didn’t start the fires and, in fact, they were the ones who expended the most effort to put them out.  They questioned a bunch of people concerning the fire (including a young spy named Nathan Hale), but never found a suspect.  The buildings that survived became British hospitals and prisons.  The homes still standing (and not owned by British sympathizers) were taken over by Redcoat officers.

Under British control, New York City became a Loyalist enclave, and would remain so for many years.  It was many of these “Loyalists” to the Crown that, years later, would make the push to ratify the Constitution in New York such a struggle.

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