THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

02 September 2015

Reagan's Critic: Daniel Patrick Moynihan

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DanielPatrickMoynihan

Above: Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Image from Wikipedia.

[This post, from Joe Ryan-Hume, University of Glasgow, is another in our series of posts from this year's Eccles Centre Fellows]

Earlier in the summer, I had the pleasure of spending two weeks at the British Library as part of an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Research Fellowship Award. In a fortnight filled with record heat waves and unavoidable tube strikes, I was able to make substantial progress on a thesis chapter based on my findings at the library. The wealth of material available is beyond compare, and as this post will highlight, use of the newspaper archives, particularly the New York Times, enabled me to strengthen my argument considerably.

I am a current third-year Ph.D. student based in the Department of History at the University of Glasgow. My thesis questions the notion of conservative ascendancy and the so-called ‘Reagan revolution’ in 1980s America by reinterpreting the impact of liberalism at the time. In order to do so, a section of it focuses on Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY.), a liberal champion and vocal critic of the Reagan administration. From an examination of my initial research, completed whilst a 2014 John W. Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress, it became clear that Moynihan played a crucial role in protecting liberalism’s brightest jewel, Social Security, from conservative dissection. With a case study titled ‘Social Security and the 1982 Midterms’, I sought to use the collections at the British Library to show how and why a strong liberal defence of Social Security in the early 1980s, driven by Moynihan in the Senate and supplemented by the activism of liberal interest groups, dissuaded the Reagan administration from attempting major revisions and had a dramatic impact on the 1982 midterms.

One find in particular allowed me to effectively pinpoint the exact moment a successful liberal backlash to a key facet of Reagan’s conservative agenda started to take hold. In a New York Times article from May 1981, Senator Moynihan penned a response to a recent Senate rebuke of a Reagan Social Security proposal. Having led the argument against Reagan’s plans, Moynihan was able to convince a Republican-dominated Senate to vote 96-0 to reject the entire proposal. However, not only did Moynihan use this space to criticise Reagan’s Social Security plan – arguing that alongside abolishing a 45 year old policy that entitled orphans in foster care to federal assistance, the Reagan administration had sent proposals to Congress to slash retirement benefits at the very same time as the Republican National Committee was mailing a leaflet with the headline ‘President Reagan Keeps Promise, Retirement Benefits Go Untouched’ – but he also attacked the very foundation of the so-called Reagan Revolution; hence his use of the word ‘beyond’ in the title ‘Beyond 96-0.’

‘Remember that the victorious party was not pledged to any radical disruptions of social programs of the kind now being proposed’ Moynihan wrote. Yet ‘one economist after another and, in the end, decisively, Wall Street, offered the view that there was no way that a one-third tax cut could pay for itself.’ As Moynihan shows, ‘one year ago, the President's campaign rhetoric was still full of wishful thinking about major tax cuts without any reductions in Government spending. Despite all of this early supply-side hyperbole, the President's actual program represents a total repudiation of the naive Laffer curve theory that across-the-board tax cuts are self-financing.’ With Moynihan leading the charge against Reagan for the rest of the decade, as David Stockman, Reagan’s first budget director, would later lament in his memoirs, the May 1981 showdown in Congress was the beginning of the end for the Reagan Revolution.

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Above: Reagan addresses Congress on the Program to Economic Recovery (April 28th, 1981). Image from Wikipedia.

Using resources at the British Library such as the above New York Times article has allowed me to discover how the Social Security issue effectively reshaped the contours of Reagan’s America and slowed the pace of the ‘Reagan Revolution’ steam train. Gathering this information has helped me to map out how and why liberals were able to gain such political traction on an issue seen by conservatives to epitomise the supposedly elephantine, bloated nature of the federal government. By discovering some of the varied strategies implemented in order to save Social Security from the conservative chopping board, this research has greatly improved the range and depth of my thesis. My lack of access to such varied materials locally had hindered the progression of this research beforehand. Thus, a research trip to the United States aside, the best (and perhaps only) way to comprehensively research the observations of the American press from the 1980s was at the British Library. The majority of my findings regarding Moynihan and the Social Security battle of the early 1980s will be published in my thesis, which has the working title ‘Standing in Reagan’s Shadow: Liberal Strategies in a Conservative Age.’

 

28 August 2015

HC SVUNT DRACONES

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  IMG_4449

Above: displays have always been a highlight. This was of our Edward Curtis materials, for students from NYU (image: PJH)

Well, after five years as part of Team Americas (nine, if you count my time as an MA and PhD student) I'm moving on to new pastures - even if they are still part of the British Library. Next week I'll be taking up the post of Lead Curator, Digital Mapping, and will be based with colleagues in the Contemporary British team.

It's a return to my founding discipline, as I'm a Geographer originally, but I will miss working with the Americas collections. Over the last five years I've learnt a lot through the Library's collections and the chance to wallow in their breadth has been fascinating. I can safely say there is more material here than you could ever possibly imagine. In many ways, and in contrast to doing a PhD, this is the joy of working as a curator; getting to stretch yourself out over a vast range of information about the history and present of the Americas and their place in the world.

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Above: looking over exhibition design proofs for Lines in the Ice (image: PJH)

This being the case I thought it would be a shame to leave without noting down some of my highlights working for Team Americas, mostly for nostalgia but also because some of it might interest you. So, here we go;

  1. Y'all: I wrote last week about it being an honour to meet Reverend Jesse Jackson but, while this is true, I can honestly say it's been my absolute pleasure to work with each and every one of you. The main joy of my role has been getting an inside view of what questions researchers on all levels are asking about the collections. As our Summer Scholars show, you're all doing great work.
  2. The Eccles Centre: most of you reading the blog know this already but many of us in American, Canadian and now Caribbean Studies would get an awful lot less done without them.
  3. Students: we hear a lot about how awful it is being a graduate student and, yes, the hours are long and the subsequent employment prospects are less than great. However, the amount of brilliant work PhDs in Americas studies are doing is astonishing and adds a huge amount to their fields and the broader understanding of the Library's collections. On top of this my own PhD students have been fantastic and a guaranteed highlight to any week I've worked with them.
  4. Events and exhibitions: I've been lucky during my time in the Americas collections and have run a number of events and displays, as well as one exhibition. Lines in the Ice was a privilege to put on but for all the academic praise it received the biggest achievement was getting younger children interested in the Arctic. Seeing young folk (be they 5 or 15) every day enjoying listening to the sounds of walruses under water or Inuit throat singing was a delight. The events have been great too, Summer Scholars was a hoot (especially when Naomi Wood was blasting out music next to the Conservation Centre) and events like 'Our Memories of the Uprisings' brought communities together.
  5. The societies: be it BAAS, BACS or SCS, the Americas area studies societies are an important hub for their respective disciplines. Make no bones about it, times are tough for area studies scholars and departments but the members of these groups keep bringing people together, innovating and, along with the Eccles Centre, providing a hub to keep on raising important questions.
  6. Australasia: my adopted charge. I took on these collections while we were without an Australasia curator and it was an immensely rewarding experience. I learnt that I knew as good as nothing about Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island history and got to rectify that by using original historical documents. A unique and exciting adventure.
  7. The collections: I'll be working with physical collections a lot less now but, even in a digital age, it's impossible to over-stress how important these are. Be they books, photographs, newspapers, maps or manuscripts each of these objects, produced yesterday or a thousand years ago, is a connection to the past. This connection is partial, obscured, provocative, confusing and many other things that stop it being (as we too often say) a 'window' onto the past but the fundamental truth that some other person touched this object, be they another reader, an eighteenth-century mapmaker or King George III, makes that connection tangible and personal.
  8. This blog: last but not least. Writing on here about what Team Americas has found, who has visited and what we're up to has always been enjoyable. It's tough to find the time, as it always is with writing, but the blog both inspires research and acts as a record of what has happened to Team Americas since late 2009. Hopefully I'll pop back up occasionally, but for a while it will carry on without me.

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Above: hopefully, I'll still be working with the originals of these. Occasionally.

This, of course, isn't everything and nor should it be as I'm not leaving the Library. There is a lot I still get to do and, thankfully, that includes working with the Americas team and the Eccles Centre, even if this doesn't happen quite as often. However, for now, this is goodbye to our time working together with the Americas collections.

I'm off to find some [digital] dragons.

[PJH]

24 August 2015

Team Americas meets Reverend Jesse Jackson

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William Wells Brown (portrait)  Olaudah Equiano (portrait)

Above: portraits from the works of William Wells Brown [BL: 10880.a.6] and Olaudah Equiano [BL: 1489.g.50], two items displayed for the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Last week Team Americas had the pleasure of putting on a small show of collection items for Reverend Jesse Jackson, who visited the Library's Magna Carta show ahead of his event on Friday evening. I've done more than a few collection displays while I've been a curator and it's always entertaining to collate a selection of material, usually on a tight timescale, from the Library's vast collections and making a narrative that will interest the audience and illuminate the significance of the objects on show.

For Reverend Jackson's display I focussed on the long march to abolish slavery and attain racial equality in the Americas, which is extensively detailed in manuscript, book, newspaper and other collections held here. It was an opportunity to look at a number of items I know of but have not spent time with and also to show some of the notable interconnections between the items, collections and ideas that make up the wider Americas collections.

Spending time with material you've not read before is always fascinating and the Library's holdings of manuscript letters between King Henri Christophe of Haiti and Thomas Clarkson, written in 1816, are particularly so. Consisting mostly of a lengthy letter from Christophe to Clarkson there are two main threads to the message: Christophe explaining why the Haitian revolution was so necessary and also thanking Clarkson for dispatching some (reading between the lines) British teachers to support education in this new free state. The arrival of these teachers raises a question as to exactly what is going on here. Christophe is undoubtedly pleased with their arrival ('the greatest benefit' he calls them) but why, above all things, did Clarkson send teachers? Was he asked to? Did he decide they were an important part of, perhaps, shaping free Haiti into a recognisably European state? Or did he think educating free Afro-Caribbeans would make a useful case for his own abolitionist work?

Whatever the case, the letters remind us of a few important points: that the networks involved in promoting the end of slavery and subsequent racial equality in the Americas were international in nature; that they involved a large number of individuals with prodigious global contacts; that each party in these networks had their own aims and objectives; and that activism in these networks could spring up in the most unlikely of places. Another item on display was a copy of Olaudah Equiano's 'Interesting Narrative' and a glance at the subscribers in this work illustrates the above nicely. A recent blog post by our student Ellie Bird (whose research was also on display) illustrates the surprising locations involved, as authors promoting Underground Railroad publications found their way to the Lake District.

The only problem with these displays (as with these blogs) is that people are busy and there's never enough time to talk about absolutely everything that piques one's interests. Sadly, my time of doing these displays is coming to an end too as, at the beginning of September, I'll be taking up the post of Lead Curator, Digital Mapping, here at the Library. Given this will be one of my final displays I've decided to leave it on the blog for future reference and so the handout can be downloaded below. 

Download Freedom and Equality in the Americas (Rev Jackson display, final)

[PJH]