Friday, February 17, 2017

Testimony of Robert Pierce Forbes to the Appopriations Subcommittee, Connecticut General Assembly, February 17, 2017

Honorable Members:
I have been a Connecticut resident and a scholar of Connecticut and national history for thirty years. During that time, I have served as a board member of the Amistad Committee and of Amistad America, the Connecticut Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, and the Connecticut State Historic Records Advisory Board. I currently serve as the President of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven. I was also the founding Associate Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Abolition at Yale University, and at as an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s Torrington campus, I instituted the northwest Connecticut regional competition of Connecticut History Day.
In all these capacities, I have worked closely with and received assistance from the Connecticut Humanities Council and the organizations, such as the Connecticut League of History Organizations, that it supports. I have been awed by the extraordinary impact that the CHC has been able to make in this state with exceedingly slender resources. The multiplier effect of dollars directed toward cultural organizations to the economic health of communities has been well documented. Therefore, a cut to spending on cultural institutions is not a savings measure, but a self-inflicted wound to the state’s bottom line.
Of course, the value of the work of the Connecticut Humanities Council goes far beyond the economic. It has increased awareness of the extraordinary richness and significance of Connecticut history and culture. In addition to supporting innovative projects at the state’s flagship institutions, the CHC and the programs it funds have fostered grass-roots, volunteer-led organizations that make up the unique fabric of our great, but fragile and often unappreciated heritage. The budget of the CHC, in relation to state spending, is tiny—yet the impact of its loss, to dozens if not hundreds of small, vibrant institutions that contribute immeasurably to what makes Connecticut special, cannot be measured, and in some cases, cannot be undone.
Governor Malloy, in his first inaugural address on January 5, 2011, described himself as “humbled by the sense of history that lives within the soul of our great state.” He turned for inspiration to the words of my ancestor, Abraham Davenport, who, when in 1780 the skies of New England inexplicably went dark, urged his fellow legislators to keep to their work:
"I am against an adjournment. The Day of Judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought."

Reflecting on this utterance, Governor Malloy observed, “Today, we could use a few candles.” The Connecticut Humanities Council is one such candle. I urge you not to permit it to be snuffed out.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Zeroing Out Connecticut Humanities - an op-ed submitted to the Hartford Courant

It seems like every fifteen years or so, Connecticut’s lawmakers, in a fit of pique, go after Connecticut’s history and culture.  

In July 2002, angry that the then-Connecticut Historical Commission was doing its job and calling attention to a landmark headquarters that a powerful corporation wanted to tear down, the legislature slashed more than half a million dollars from the Commission’s budget—forcing it to shut down the four state history museums at the height of the tourist season.

In an op-ed that year, I called the state’s assault on its history a “self-inflicted lobotomy.” Public outcry forced the legislature and Governor Rowland to relent, and the funding was restored. But the humanities world was put on notice: you are not safe.

This year, it’s the Governor’s pique that’s responsible for a much more devastating assault. The Democratic caucus failed to take up his admittedly sensible prison reform agenda. To teach the lawmakers a lesson, the governor line-item vetoed $20+ million they had approved in the FY2016-17 state budget. Included in these cuts: all $1.73 million in state aid for Connecticut Humanities—two-thirds of its entire budget.

Few institutions touch more Connecticut residents than Connecticut Humanities ( Just a few of the organizations they support include the Otis Library in Norwich, the Sharon Historical Society, Hartford’s Sankofa Kuumba Cultural Arts Consortium, Wethersfield’s Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, and the Russell Library in Middletown. Most of these grants are, In the grand scheme of things, tiny—few are more than $4,000. But they catalyze dynamic, volunteer-driven organizations that change lives and bring pride to communities.  Even if these programs did not generete a multiplier effect of heritage tourism dollars—which they do—Connecticut Humanities’ grants would represent an extraordinary return on investment. It is hard to imagine another cut of this small size that could inflict more damage on Connecticut’s spirit and imagination.

One of the crown jewels of  Connecticut Humanities is Connecticut History Day ( Each year, thousands of Connecticut students in grades 6 through 12 make a part of history their own, creating original exhibits, performances, documentaries, websites, and essays. Dozens of Connecticut students represented our state at the National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland, and several took home top honors in their categories. Participation in History Day not only gives students the skills to be thoughtful and informed citizens, it leads to measurable improvement on standardized tests in a broad range of subjects.

After years of scrambling to find sponsorship and funding, Connecticut History Day recently gained a solid institutional foundation, being administered by the Old State House and Connecticut Historical Society, with funding from Connecticut Humanities. That foundation is now lost.

In yet another hit to the Old State House, the new state budget transferred control of the building from the Office of Legislative Management to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection--resulting in the, at least temporary, closure of this landmark building in the process. A Courant editorial of June 30 lamented the shuttering of the OSH, asserting that “the state legislature gets all the credit for this mess.” No, they get their share, but the lion’s share goes to Governor Malloy.

Connecticut culture-lovers who had suffered through several administrations that did little to support the state’s heritage and history responded with joy to Governor Malloy’s first inaugural address, which reached back to lessons from our past for inspiration to confront our present challenges. This governor is far more culpable than his predecessors, who were indifferent to Connecticut’s humanities. He is well aware that every dollar spent on our cultural assets is repaid many-fold in tourist revenues. Connecticut’s residents should tell the governor to remember his inaugural pledge, and to reverse this mean-spirited and devastating action.

Robert Pierce Forbes, Ph.D.
New Haven

The author, a professional public historian, was the founder and for several years the coordinator of the Torrington regional contest of Connecticut History Day.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

John Langdon thanks Jefferson for the present he gave his daughter

December 7, 1785, John Langdon to Jefferson, Portsmouth (NH): “Our dear Bets, begs leave to present you with her grateful thanks, for the great honor you have been pleased to confer on her, in sending such an agreeable present: all Companies who come into the house must be entertained with the sight of her doll, and tumbling Gentleman; and she does not fail to confess her obligations to Governor Jefferson.
  “Mrs. Langdon desires her most kind respects may be made acceptable to you and your agreeable daughter.” [Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 9:84-85]  

Langdon was the governor of New Hampshire, and wealthiest resident of Portsmouth. Jefferson visited on a side trip on his way to Boston before sailing for his diplomatic post in Paris in 1784.

My memory of David Bowie

I had been thinking a lot about Bowie in the week before his death, so I was shocked, but maybe not surprised, when I read about it. In 1978 I was in London and tried to get tickets to the concert for what came to be known as the Low/Heroes tour. The London show was sold out, so I hitchhiked up to Stafford where he was playing in a vast agricultural exposition hall. Had tickets to the second night, but got there in time for the first; a group of kids had a spare ticket which they gave me, and this young woman who was being treated for her birthday grabbed my hand and squeezed toward the front saying, “Excuse me, I’m 4’10”! Excuse me, I’m 4’10”!” We made it to the very front of the stage, stage right. Incredible concert.

Bowie and Adrian Belew

That night I slept in a field next to the hall, and was the first person in line the next day. Again made it to the very front, stage left. Another incredible show. Adrian Belew jamming with himself in feedback like a joyful, demented madman maybe ten feet above me. Bowie looked me in the eye and I’m sure recognized me from the night before, and gave me that unforgettable, unique smile. Whenever I see it in The Man Who Fell to Earth (I don’t think it happens in any of his music videos) it takes me right back to that night. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

Charles Thomson to Jefferson: Slavery "is a cancer that we must get rid of."

Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, to Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 2, 1785: “I have received your several favours of Feb y 8 June 21 and July 14 and also a copy of your Notes by M r Houdon, for which I am much obliged. It grieves me to the soul that there should be such just grounds for your apprehensions respecting the irritation that will be produced in the southern states by what you have said of slavery. However I would not have you discouraged. This is a cancer that we must get rid of. It is a blot in our character that must be wiped out. If it cannot be done by religion reason & philosophy, confident I am that it will one day be by blood. I confess I am more afraid of this than of the Algerine piracies or the jealousy entertained of us by European powers of which we hear so much of late. However I have the satisfaction to find that philosophy is gaining ground of selfishness in this respect: If this can be rooted out, & our land filled with freemen, union preserved & the spirit of liberty maintained and cherished I think in 25 or 30 years we shall have nothing to fear from the rest of the world . . .” [Papers of Thomas Jefferson 9:9]

Friday, October 16, 2015

Lost poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper discovered

Congratulations to Johanna Ortner, Ph.D. candidate at UMass-Amherst, for rediscovering the first collection of poetry of the 19th-century activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. (By the way, Johanna, I think it's acceptable to scream when making a find of this magnitude.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Friday, August 28, 2015

America's deadliest, longest war

It's time to put US gun deaths in perspective.

  • The attacks of 9/11/01 killed 2,996 people. Guns do that every 4.8 weeks.
  • Syria had 76,000 deaths in 2014. We do that every 30 months.
  • The  US has 6000 more gun deaths per year than ALL THE ISRAELI-PALESTINE DEATHS SINCE 1948.
  • Two months of gun deaths in US top the total conflict deaths in the Ukraine.
  • As many people are killed by guns in US in 26 months as in 11 years of the Salvadoran civil war (70,000).
  • The Kashmir conflict has  been going since 1947, with 47,000 killed. We do that with gun deaths in less than 19 months.
  • Japan has experienced less than half the number of gun related crimes in the 70 years since World War II than the US experiences gun-related deaths in an average year.
Make of this what you will. What I make of it is:

By far the deadliest conflict in the world today is the U.S. Gun War. More people have died by guns since 1968 (1.5 million) than from all other U.S. wars combined (1.4 million) (Politifact.)