New York, the nation’s historically most important state, has a lot of history worth exploring and sharing more extensively. That history is particularly useful for perspective on current critical public issues.
Many of these are discussed in a historical vacuum, as if they have never been considered before. In fact they have, and history is a good place to start the discussion because it provides parallels, precedents, and perspectives.
Here are some current examples:
** Governor Kathy Hochul has announced her determination to restore and strengthen ethics in state government. That is a worthy goal but it is one that every governor for more than a century has espoused. It would be useful to look at the strengths and drawbacks of the state’s first ethics code (Governor Thomas Dewey, 1954), the Special Committee on Ethics (Governor Nelson Rockefeller, 1964), the State Commission on Public Integrity (Governor Mario Cuomo, 1986), the Public Employees’ Ethics Reform Act (Governor Eliot Spitzer, 2009), and the goals and history of the state’s current ethics watchdog (Joint Commission on Public Integrity, originated by Governor Andrew Cuomo, 2011).
** The Regents recently received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to continue their study, begun two years ago, of alternatives to Regents exams as high school graduation requirements. A historical study of the history of the purposes, effectiveness, impact, and limitations of Regents exams, initiated in 1865, would help inform the Regents study. It would also bring in perspectives from past reports and studies, e.g., purposes of the State Education Department (1904), Regents Inquiry into the Character and Cost of Education (1935-1938) and the Regents task force on the Regents exams (1972) that concluded that “Regents examinations have been a sound and profitable investment.”
** There is a good deal of public discussion these days about issues relating to civil rights, race, and cultural pluralism. There is no better place than New York history, particularly New York City, the nation’s most vibrant and diverse metropolis for over a century, to study issues and public policy related to immigration, accommodation, diversity, tension, and similar issues.
About 35 % of New York City’s residents were foreign-born in 1920; about the same percentage are today. New York passed the first state personal privacy act (1903) the first state workers’ compensation act (1910) and the first state civil rights law (1945). The NAACP was founded in New York City in 1909. Governor Charles Evans Hughes in 1908 established the “Commission to Inquire Into the Condition, Welfare and Industrial Opportunities of Aliens,” one of the first state immigration studies in the nation, which advanced recommendations for state policies to welcome and support immigrants.
** There is also discussion about what should and what should not be taught in the schools about race and related issues. Some states are passing laws to prescribe certain topics; others, to proscribe certain topics. Over the years, New York has been a model worth studying. The Regents often established teaching objectives and frameworks for critical social and cultural topics and mostly left it to local school boards, principals, and teachers to decide just what to teach.
A notable exception, also worth study, would be a series of laws in 1919-1923, passed during intense media and public alarm about radicalism, One law proscribed the use of any textbooks in the schools which contained “any matter or statements of any kind which are seditious in character, or favorable to the cause of any foreign country with which the United States is at war.” Another required teacher loyalty oaths. The laws discouraged scholarship and intimidated teachers. But they are a useful example of the ramifications of legislatures following shifting public perceptions and sentiments.
** The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case that originated in Rensselaer County by people challenging the administration of New York’s “concealed carry” gun control law. That law, often called the “Sullivan Act” after its sponsor, state senator Timothy Sullivan, was enacted 110 years ago. It has been analyzed, endorsed, criticized, and repeatedly considered by the courts. Knowing more about the purpose, rationale, application, court decisions, and in general the history and impact of the law, would be a useful background for the court and for the public when the court’s decision is released next spring.
** In the state’s continuing efforts to stem COVID, it would be useful to consider the state’s work to eradicate smallpox in the early 20th century. Like COVID, smallpox was a highly communicable and infectious disease. Schools were a particular point of focus because of the proximity of students in classrooms. In the 1904 decision in Matter of Viemeister, the Court of Appeals confirmed the state’s authority to require smallpox vaccinations in the school.
The next year, 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court cited that opinion in its own decision in Jacobson vs. Massachusetts, upholding the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. The state’s Viemeister is still sometimes cited in court cases and the Supreme Court’s Jacobson decision is still regarded as legal precedent. It is another example of the importance of historical analysis and also of New York’s importance in American legal history.
Of course, these are only a few examples. Historians familiar with the history of the state and its communities could come up with many others.
April 20th is New York State’s Birthday, the day in 1777 when an ad hoc revolutionary convention finished work on the first state constitution. That is the day when the state came into existence. But it is not a state holiday and is not commemorated. The state’s birthday would be a good time to consider constitutional issues, civil rights, and the role of government, which would shed light on current issues in those areas.
October is by statute New York State History Month. This year, leaders of the state’s historical community including New York Almanack editor John Warren, State Historian Devin Lander, the State Museum and the Path Through History historical tourism program, promoted it. But the month passed quietly, with no gubernatorial proclamations or speeches, no parades, and no widespread public commemorations, following a pattern since it was established by the legislature 24 years ago. State History Month might be a useful time to shed historical light on critical public issues.
New York State history used to receive substantial coverage in schools but now it gets scant attention. Students graduate every year with very little knowledge of the history of their own state or community. Increasing state history in the curriculum would give students an understanding of New York’s usable past.
Map of the State of New York courtesy Nations Online Project.