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Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 26, 1789 Posted - Nov 16, 2018
Early to bed, early to rise: that was the farmer in George Washington.

Each day, the President rose before dawn, shaved by candlelight, dressed with the help of his valet, and while the house was quiet he sat at his desk and read several newspapers and did correspondence work. After two hours, he stopped for a breakfast of hoe cakes smothered in butter and honey and chased with several cups of tea taken with milk.

After breakfast, he studied state papers, signed documents, met with staff and, as necessary, met with advisors, cabinet members, congressmen, and foreign ministers. In the evenings, as often as he could, he attended the theater. There was one theater in New York City, the John Street Theater, where the President was often seen in the company of dignitaries, cabinet members, Congressmen, family and friends. After the theater, and on most nights around 8 p.m., Washington would eat a light supper and go to bed. Most nights he was in bed by nine o'clock.

George Washington loved the theater. He appreciated its power, not merely to entertain, but to communicate ideas. He enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays most of all, particularly “Julius Caesar.” During the bleak winter at Valley Forge, he staged a play for his soldiers, one with an unmistakable message, entitled "Cato." Cato was a Roman patriot and staunch supporter of the Roman Republic who opposed Caesar's usurpation of power. Rather than capitulate to a tyrant and give up his freedom, he commits suicide. The message: freedom is so precious, without it life is not worth living.

Washington's journal entry for Tuesday, November 24, 1789 reads: "A good deal of Company at the Levee today. Went to the Play in the Evening." What did he see? A comedy, entitled: “The Toy; or A Trip to Hampton Court.” A newspaper reported: "On the appearance of The President, the audience rose, and received him with the warmest acclamations." The play must have been very funny because this was said to have been the only pubic occasion at which George Washington was seen to laugh.


Before adjourning in September, Congress had resolved that the president should proclaim a day of national thanksgiving. Thus, on October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation assigning November 26 as Thanksgiving Day. This was the first national day of thanksgiving to be celebrated in the United States.

On November 26, Washington wrote in his journal: "Being the day appointed for Thanksgiving I went to St. Paul’s Chapel though it was most inclement and stormy–but few people at the church." In honor of the day, he contributed seven pounds, ten shillings out of his own pocket to purchase "provision & beer" for inmates at the City's debtor prison.

Going forward, Thanksgiving would be celebrated irregularly. For example, the next thanksgiving day was not proclaimed until 1795. Washington’s successor, John Adams, would proclaim but two Thanksgiving Days; Thomas Jefferson none at all. Thanksgiving would not become an annual national holiday until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln instituted Thanksgiving as a yearly event.

What Thanksgiving meal was served that day at the Presidential Mansion on 1 Cherry Street in New York City is not known. What is known is this: most days Washington dined at two in the afternoon. The meal consisted of various meat dishes: fish, fowl, ham, beef steak, accompanied with a variety of fruits and vegetables and rounded off with lavish deserts. Washington's dinner usually consisted of a single entree and afterward he drank champagne or Madeira wine while conversing with guests, family and friends. Later, he went for a walk, usually to the Battery and back, or rode on horseback, or took a carriage ride with Mrs. Washington.

There was much to be thankful for that first year of the federal government under the new U.S. Constitution. In completing what was left undone at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the First Congress had created the Federal Appellate Court System, including the Supreme Court; the executive departments of State, Treasury, and War; wrote and approved Ten Amendments, also known as the Bill of Rights; and passed a federal revenue system to pay the government's bills–this was the 1789 Tariff Act, signed into law on July 4. The principle failure of Congress under the Articles of Confederation was its failure to pass the 1783 Tariff Bill. Under the old government, passage required a unanimous vote. Under the new Constitution, that was no longer the case; a two-thirds vote of approval in both houses was all that was required. In the works that Fall was "The Report on Public Credit," requested by Congress, and being drafted by newly appointed Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to make provision for paying the war debt and thereby restoring the nation's faltering credit. As word spread that the government intended to pay the debt, the price of government securities began to rise, business picked up and the sluggish economy showed signs of recovery. The feeling spread that the new government that Washington accurately described as an "experiment" was going to succeed after all.

No subsequent Congress would be as productive as the First Congress in its first six months. Then, too, no subsequent Congress ever again would feel as compelled to act as the First Congress had, when the very existence of the republic was at stake. Incredibly George Washington's mere presence made it all possible, such was the faith the nation had in his leadership as the first president of the United States.

Henceforth known as "The Father of his Country" George Washington was a man of unimpeachable honesty, deepest dignity, and unquestioned integrity.

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Minnesota Rag: the bizarre case of Near v. Minnesota
Posted - Nov 10, 2018
It was the least likely of cases to come before the U.S. Supreme Court. The defendant Jay Near did not have the money nor the inclination to appeal his case all the way to the Supreme Court. What he wanted was to have a gag order lifted so he could resume publication of his newspaper, a scurrilous rag known as the Saturday Press. Only events played out far differently than he or anyone could have imagined. The ACLU took an interest in the case, and the publisher of the Chicago Tribune put up the money to pay legal fees to carry out an appeal.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but the chances of a favorable ruling did look promising until two conservative judges died within days of each other. As fate would have it, president Herbert Hoover appointed two moderates to the bench, one of whom would end up writing the Court’s majority opinion. In 1931 Near v. Minnesota was decided 5 to 4 in Near’s favor—a decision that bears directly on freedom of the press today. In the book, "Minnesota Rag" journalist Fred W. Friendly does a bang up job in recounting Near’s incredible story from muckraking journalist to First Amendment hero, in a whirlwind 179 pages.

The Twin Cities of 1920s Minnesota was, according to a cop on the beat at the time named Ed Ryan, a “wide open town with gambling joints, slot machines, houses of prostitution . . . You name it we had it . . . When you see slot machines and gambling all over the place, there has to be a pay-off (to public officials).” The respectable newspapers, with a number of reporters on the take, turned a blind eye to the corruption. Not publisher Howard A. Guilford. He practiced a brand of journalism that, as the author put it, “tattered on the edge of legality and often toppled over the limits of propriety.” Enter Jay M. Near, who joined his crusade as co-publisher. He ratcheted it up a notch—several notches—by indulging his anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-black, and anti-labor prejudices in his seamy accounts of wide-spread city corruption. Despite this, much of what the two men published was true, or at least more true than false.

Rather than go after the paper for libel, the state’s attorney general got a restraining order to stop publication. Backed by a newly-enacted Public Nuisance Law—popularly known as the “Minnesota gag law”—the judge ordered the Saturday Review to cease publication. Guilford and Near appealed their case up through the Minnesota appeals court system—losing each round—until reaching the Supreme Court. By then, Guilford had dropped out, disappointed and exhausted from the process, and by then the ACLU, and Robert McCormick, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, had stepped in to take up their cause. Though disgusted with much of the content of the Saturday Press, the ACLU focused their attention on the Public Nuisance Law, citing is as “a menace to the freedom of the country,” and singled out a phrase that would become central to the High Court’s decision: “prior restraint.” What drew McCormick’s interest was his zeal for protecting the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press.

Had Near’s appeal reached the Supreme Court one year earlier, it’s likely he would have lost, due to the conservative majority then presiding. But with the sudden deaths of Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Associate Justice Edward T. Sanford, the Court adopted a more moderate view with the appointments of Owen T. Roberts and, as the new chief justice, Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes appointed himself to write the Court’s majority opinion.

Hughes scolded the plaintiffs—“whose character and conduct remain open to debate and free discussion in the press”—for not seeking legal remedies for false accusations “in actions under libel laws for redress and punishment, and not in proceedings to restrain the publication of papers and periodicals.” Further on he wrote: “The fact that the liberty of the press may be abused by miscreant purveyors of scandal does not make any the less necessary the immunity of the press from previous restraint in dealing with official misconduct.

“Judgement reversed,” he concluded.

The term “previous restraint” would morph into “prior restraint” and become central to a series of landmark decisions, particularly New York Times Co. v. U.S., better known as the Pentagon Papers case.

Final note: Near v. Minnesota marked a significant change in the Court’s direction, away from conservative judicial activism that had undermined the working class, the civil rights of minorities, and free speech, toward a more liberal era of judicial restraint, signaled by West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937), better known as "The switch in time that saved nine,” where, for the first time the Court upheld a state minimum wage law.

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Posted - Nov 03, 2018
The following is an excerpt from my book "Washington in New York" due out in Spring 2019; which now seems particularly relevant, in light of the mass shootings at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, two weeks ago. – Rich

On August 4, 1790, Congress authorized the first issue of U.S. Treasury Bonds thereby setting in motion Hamilton’s economic recovery program.

On August 12, Congress adjourned. Legislators wasted little time packing and getting out of town.

President George Washington, meanwhile, had one final piece of unfinished business to deal with–Rhode Island. Rhode Island was not only small–37 miles wide by 48 miles long–but a source of considerable grief for the Union. Under the Articles of Confederation, it had been the only state to vote against the Tariff Bill, thereby blocking the government’s best hope of creating a revenue stream. In 1787, Rhode Island was the only state NOT to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. And in 1788 the Rhode Island legislature put the brakes on a scheduled ratifying convention thereby denying the people of that state the right to decide whether or not to join the Union.

Well, Rhode Island had been a thorn in the nation’s side long enough. It was time they joined they Union. The surest way of getting their attention was to hit them where it counted–in the pocket book. Word went out that if they didn’t join the Union their exports would be taxed as if they were a foreign nation. Being heavily dependent on trade with New York, Philadelphia, and South Carolina, they got the message. On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island ratified, becoming the thirteenth state to join the Union.

Rhode Island had been a thorn in Washington’s side as well. He had avoided the state while touring the Northeast the previous Fall. Now, he wanted to personally welcome the Ocean State into the fold. On August 15 the President boarded a packet ship and journeyed there by sea. Joining him were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, New York Governor George Clinton, Judge Blair of the United States Court, three members of Congress, and three of Washington's staff. They were merely window dressing. Washington was the main event, the one everyone wanted to see.

If there was any resentment about being coerced into joining the union, Rhode Islanders didn’t show it. On the morning of the 17th, they turned out in droves to cheer the President’s arrival in Newport. After the usual round of speeches, Washington made a tour of the city. Fully recovered from his illness and feeling fit and strong again, he walked with the briskness of a young man. Those walking with him had trouble keeping up. In the evening he attended a dinner in his honor at the State House.

The following morning, while listening to various city officials and religious leaders welcoming him to their city, Washington was particularly touched by a letter read aloud from the Newport Hebrew Congregation. The members were descendants of Portuguese Jews who had suffered persecution during the Spanish Inquisition and sought refuge in America. Their letter read in part:

"Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial of affection and esteem. . . .

"With pleasure we reflect on those days–those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel who delivered David from the peril of the sword–shielded Your Head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

"Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People–a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance–but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great government Machine:

"This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confident and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good. . . ."


As president, Washington had written any number of letters to various churches and congregations around the country, but his response to the Hebrew Congregation is particularly profound. The style is lean, direct, Lincolnesqe. His allusion to everyone sitting in safety “under his own vine and fig tree” is from the Bible.

Washington's letter:

"While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

"The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

"If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

"The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy–a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

"It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants–while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

"May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

G. Washington

That same day, Washington re-boarded a ship and after seven hours at sea was greeted in Providence with a salute of cannon fire, the ringing of church bells, and the singing of songs. After the sun set he visited the local college (the future Brown University) which on this special occasion was all aglow in candlelight. The next morning was cold and rainy. When the weather cleared Washington was given a walking tour of the city, including a visit to the local shipyard where he was reminded that Rhode Island depended on trade for its livelihood. That afternoon he attended yet another dinner in his honor. After a number of toasts and speeches by local dignitaries, Washington’s party boarded a packet ship and returned to New York.

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The last Romantic–the symphonies of Gustav Mahler
Posted - Oct 27, 2018
Orchestral music was in a state of transition when Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) took up his pen and began composing symphonies, the likes of which the world had never heard before. His nine symphonies span perhaps the most momentous transition in all of music. While his youth coincided with the final flowering of Late Romanticism (the music of Brahms, Shumann and Wagner), his later years saw the birth of radicalism (the music of Debussy, Hindemith and Richard Strauss) that was to undermine the centuries-old structure of music itself. In taking the traditional symphony to its expressive limits, and in so doing stretching the conventional tonal system to the breaking point, Mahler effectively contributed to its demise. In a sense Mahler was the last Romantic, the end of the line that begun about 100 years before with the classic symphonies of Franz-Joseph Haydn (and peaked with the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven). After Mahler, the symphony was no longer as important. 20th-century composers such as Bartok, Debussy, and Ravel ignored the genre altogether and felt no compulsion whatsoever to attempt writing one.

Not everyone was crazy about the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. They were long, emotionally over-the-top, and, some would say, tasteless. "The symphony," he explained, "should be like the world; it must contain everything." Indeed, had he not been a famous opera conductor, with much clout and access to a number of world-class orchestras, it's likely no one would have heard his music. Still, he never lost faith, and often said, "my time will yet come." And it did, too, in the age of recorded sound. And who should conduct his music in the age of records? Two of his understudies who had shared his vision, and who helped him conduct the massive forces his symphonies sometimes called for: Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, both of whom were in their early twenties when Mahler was approaching his 60s and writing his greatest symphonies. Long after he died, Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic performed Mahler's last great work, the mighty Ninth Symphony which was duly recorded and released to the public, on ten 78-rpm records–20 sides in all. This was in 1938. Why Bruno Walter? Because he had conducted the world premier of Symphony No. 9 in 1911.

Because Mahler's Ninth was so long it was seldom performed, thus when EMI's Fred Gaisberg learned that Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic were planning a rare performance, he decided to take the opportunity to record it. Because Walter had scheduled a number of rehearsals at Vienna's Musikverein, there was ample time for the engineers to set up a "live" recording. Two machines were used, running in harness: while one was recording, the other was being loaded with wax. Eight weeks later, Austria was annexed by Hitler. A number of Vienna Philharmonic principles fled the country, as did Walter himself.

Gaisberg caught up with Walter, a "bewildered refugee," in Paris to obtain his approval of the recording, now packaged in a multi-disc album of ten 78-rpm records. He recalled: "So delighted was he with the results that his usually sober face brightened up considerably." As well it might: an authentic document, laden with historic interest, had been captured on record with just 56 days to spare. Listening to the performance today can be a harrowing experience. And while Walter recorded the symphony after the war (in stereo, on Columbia Records), he never again captured the feeling of his earlier 1938 performance. The '38 recording has been digitalized and transferred to a single CD.

The next conductor to champion Mahler's symphonies was Leonard Bernstein. He was the first to record all nine–not once but twice.

Mahler was impressed with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with its groundbreaking use of chorus and four soloists in the Fourth Movement. He mimicked Beethoven and composed symphonies that included chorus and soloists, in not one but in five of his nine symphonies, and not in one movement, but in several. Symphony No. 8, the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand," includes two children's choirs, one adult chorus, and various soloists, plus a hundred-piece orchestra. While not quite a thousand performers are employed, the number is close to a thousand, and quite often there are more performers on stage than patrons in the audience.

For Mahler, the symphony was the means to convey the panoply and full complexity of his ideas and for this he needed a large canvas. None of his symphonies lasts less than fifty minutes and five run for over eighty. All require large orchestras and four include singers. His most popular symphony is the second, which has displaced Beethoven's Ninth as the most performed symphony in the world.

In his second symphony, Mahler tackled no less a subject than life and death. It's a work of great power and intensity, and employs a chorus and soloists. The fifth and final movement serves up an apoplectic vision of Judgement Day. Mahler named his second symphony, "The Resurrection Symphony."

His Third and Fourth symphonies employ voices as well, but are much lighter works. For the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Symphonies, Mahler returned to composing strictly for orchestra. The seventh and eighth symphonies, on the other hand, employ voices. (Note: with its large force of singers, the two-movement Eighth is more an oratorio than an actual symphony.)

Unlike other composers, Mahler devoted all of his composing talent to the symphony. On the list of great conductors, Mahler is ranked 17th.

Suggested listing: both Klemperer and Walter (and Bernstein) have recorded stellar accounts of Mahler's second and fourth symphonies. Walter's prewar Ninth is available on CD (EMI classics #62965).

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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