Friday, August 10, 2012

Don't Put Words in the Mouth of an Historical Figure

The other day on Facebook, I came across a news story posted by WRGB, our local CBS station, & I nearly posted a comment. Why did I stop myself you may ask? I didn't post the comment because I stopped & thought about what I was in the process of writing. I re-evaluated what I was writing & realized that it was reactionary &, quite possibly, wrong.

No, this is not going to be an entry about how people need to think before they write something, whether on Facebook, or otherwise (though they should). It is more specifically about how we should not assume we know a person because we learned a few factoids about their life. If you are confused, I will start from the beginning...

The headline I saw on Tuesday (8/7/12) was "Union College snags a top spot as one of the best party schools in the country! Newsweek and The Daily Beast's annual 'Top Party Colleges' list ranks Union College at #5..." My pithy reply was going to be about how alum like 21st President of the USA Chester Arthur must be so proud (sarcasm, blah, blah, blah...). Then I thought about what I have read about Arthur & his family over the years, & stopped. Just because I am an historian, doesn't know I what a person from the past would think about something that happens in the present. I might be able to speculate, but I am not a presidential scholar. I'm not Thomas C. Reeves* or Zachary Karabell^. Even they might not even to presume Arthur"s opinion on whether Union College is deserving of the #5 Party School in the country, & they have written biographies on Arthur.

Here is what I do know, of the Top 25 Party School ranked by Newsweek, Union is one of only six schools with an undergrad population below 5,000. They are the ONLY college on this list without a single arrest for drugs or alcohol made on campus. On campus disciplinary action (DA) for drugs and alcohol was pretty high however. DA for drugs in 2011 was 129 out of 2,260 students (5.7%), which was more in league with the University of Colorado at Boulder (1,404 out of 26,530 or 5.3%). DA for alcohol was at 25.9% with 586 incidents.

Arthur's opinion? Who knows. As a lawyer, he was sworn to uphold the law & underage purchase of alcohol is against the law. I will say that he & his sister Mary McElroy refused to bend to Frances Willard and the Temperance Movement by continuing to serve alcohol in the White House. Arthur was fond of a drink, though I have not read anything to suggest he was an alcoholic. Mary was a skilled hostess, & her parties during the season were well-received. I can only speculate, based on the time period, how Arthur would have felt about drug use...

For more information on Chester A. Arthur
* Reeves, T. Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 1975.
^ Karabell, Z. Chester Alan Arthur. New York, NY: Times Books. 2004.

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