It’s interesting (sometimes) to listen to the multitude of political pundits, politicians, and talking heads as they inform us what our “founding fathers” intended, and the rules, ethics, and morals this country was founded on. In reality, they are often telling us what they WANT the founding fathers to have believed. History tells us they are often far off the mark, but the lack of accuracy doesn’t deter them from saying it publicly anyway.
The often muddled view of history offered by some commentators is troubling, and is usually, of course, self-serving. But the modern media has proven one thing: if you say something often enough, whether it’s accurate or not, people (and maybe even the speaker) will begin to believe it.
When it’s intentional, that’s just plain wrong. History is important. It can offer valuable perspective on possible solutions to some of our problems, and can play an important role in how we view the present and future. It can also tell us more about who we are, something that was brought to mind recently as I listened to a radio discussion about the current jobless rate.
The focus was on the nation’s high unemployment, which reminded me of how I annoyed my teachers long ago when that very same topic was discussed. Back then, we all learned how lucky we were not to live in other countries, an argument that was backed with plenty of scary facts.
For one thing, other countries allowed no choice when attacking certain problems. We were told that some countries didn’t even ALLOW unemployment. Idle men were conscripted into the military and/or put to work for the good of the nation. All male teenagers were required to begin military training. Those countries were said to be anti-freedom, but we had choices. That kind of thing couldn’t happen here.
And that was my cue to interrupt. I’ve always read a lot, and as a teenager, I was ready to challenge my teachers (and pretty much any authority). So, I thought I had a really good set of questions about those terrible practices, something I had learned on my own.
My teacher, a fervent military man who still seemed to be fighting World War II, was not amused when I said I knew of just such a place. I said that they made unemployment illegal and forced men to take jobs chosen for them by local authorities (unless the man chose one of his own). Each man was required to work a minimum of 36 hours per week.
Even worse, I added, the government passed another law ordering all teenagers 16 or older to attend military drills or perform military duties. Doing so earned them a certificate, and here’s the kicker: without that certificate, young men were not allowed “to attend public or private school or obtain employment.”
Right away the other students began guessing. Russia? Germany under Hitler? Cuba? (Cuba did outlaw unemployment at that time.) Who would order its citizens in such fashion? My classmates knew it had to be someplace evil. After all, we were in the midst of the Cold War.
At that point, I knew I was in trouble. The instructor was staring at me with cold, beady eyes, waiting for me … no, daring me … to say it. So I said it. It wasn’t intended as a criticism. I was just happy to know the truth, excited that I had learned something unusual on my own, and couldn’t wait to share the surprise (that is, until his stare began).
“New York State and the Anti-Loafing Law,” and that’s about all I was allowed to say. The teacher immediately launched into an explanation. It was true, he said, but it was nothing like the situations in other countries. We did those things, but it was different.
And he was right, maybe. But what bothered me was how he seemed to take it personally, how insulted he was. It seemed to suggest that this was HIS country. It was, but it was my country, too, so I fought back. As I soon learned, you might have the truth, but might makes right.
The Anti-Loafing Law was passed in New York State in 1918, less than a year after the US entered WW I. Maryland and New Jersey led the way, and we were next. I found it fascinating that in a democracy, the law could require all men between the ages of 18 and 50 to be “habitually and regularly engaged in some lawful, useful, and recognized business, profession, occupation, trade, or employment until the termination of the war.”
If a man didn’t have a job, a local authority was assigned to choose one for him. And no one could turn down a job because of the level of pay. Every man must work. It was the law.
“Useful” work had its implications as well. Already, by orders of the US General Provost, Enoch Crowder, men between the ages of 21 and 30 were “not permitted to be elevator conductors, club porters, waiters, pool room attendants, life guards at summer resorts, valets, butlers, footmen, chefs, janitors, or ushers in amusement places. Men of that age were needed for war.
New York’s government, indicating there would be few exceptions to the new law, fed the media a wonderful sound bite taken directly from the text: “Loitering in the streets, saloons, depots, poolrooms, hotels, stores, and other places is considered prima facie evidence of violation of the act, punishable by a fine of $100 or imprisonment for three months, or both.”
Still not clear enough? Charles Whitman, governor of New York, chimed in: “The purpose … is to force every able-bodied male person within the State to do his share toward remedying the conditions due to the present shortage of labor.” By signing the law after New Jersey passed theirs, Whitman had a handy reason: if we didn’t pass our own law, men from New Jersey would flood across the border into New York State to avoid being forced to either work or fight.
How would it sit with you today if you read this in your favorite online journal? “The State Industrial Commission will cooperate with the sheriffs, the state police, and other peace officers throughout the state to find the unemployed and to assign them to jobs, which they must fill. It will be no defense to anyone seeking to avoid work to show that he has sufficient income or means to live without work. The state has the right to the productive labor of all its citizens.”
Governor Whitman admitted “there may be some question as to the constitutionality” of the law, but enforcement began on June 1, 1918. Sheriffs across the state were required to act, and they did. Some, like Clinton County Sheriff John Fiske, made sure there were no scofflaws, scouring local establishments as the law instructed, looking for loiterers.
Those who were jailed in Clinton County had to pay a fine and serve their time, just like the law said, but they weren’t allowed to sit idle. Fiske put them to work full-time in the community, ensuring they would comply with both the letter and the intent of the law.
On the surface, those laws look absolutely un-American and undemocratic. The argument was, extreme times (WW I) call for extreme measures. Other states and countries (including Canada) passed similar laws. Maybe New Yorkers were lucky. In Virginia, compliance was extended from ages 16 to 60. And some people retire today at 55!
Learning all of that was interesting, but sharing it in school was less than wise, at least in that particular classroom. After that, my so-called “history teacher” saw me as nothing but anti-American, and he made life miserable for me. He caused me to dread that class every day.
I argued that protesting and speaking out were critical to America—it’s how the country was formed. But it didn’t matter to him, and after that, I didn’t care. I lost all respect for him. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t just deal with the facts, and the truth. In my mind, that’s what every history teacher’s work should be based on.
I always hated those lame “George Washington cut down the cherry tree” stories. Making stuff up just means you have something to hide. Apparently they didn’t want us to know he owned slaves. As a teenager, I wanted the truth, and I could deal with it. It was far more interesting than some of the stuff they fed us.
Photo Top: NYS’s Compulsory Labor law.
Photo Middle: Clinton County Sheriff John Fiske.
Photo Bottom: NYS law ordering lawmen to search each community for able-bodied males.
Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.