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Home December 31, 1912

December 31, 1912

The next year  sweeps around the earth like the hand of a clock, from Australia to Europe and across the great stretch of the Atlantic it rides the darkness to America. And then around and around again, each passing day marking another sweep of the hours.

In Times Square crowds of tourists gather in clumps behind police barricades, clutching corporate swag beneath video billboards shifting and humming in the cool air. And the same scene repeats in other squares and other places even if it doesn't feel like there is a great deal to celebrate.

While the year makes its first pass around the world, let us leave it behind, open a door in time and step back to another year, a century past.

December 31, 1912. The crowds are just as large, though the men wear hats. People use the word gay with no touch of irony. Liquor is harder to come by because the end of the year, one hundred years ago, has fallen on a Sunday.  There are more dances and fewer corporate brands. Horns are blown, and the occasional revolver fired into the air, a sight unimaginable in the controlled celebrations of today's urban metropolis.

The Hotel Workers Union strike fizzled out on Broadway though a volley of bricks was hurled at the Hotel Astor during the celebrations. New York's finest spent the evening outside the Rockefeller mansion waiting to subpoena the tycoon in the money trust investigation. And the Postmaster General inaugurated the new parcel service by shipping a silver loving cup from Washington to New York.

On Ellis Island, Castro, a bitter enemy of the United States, and the former president of Venezuela, had been arrested for trying to sneak into the country while the customs officers had their guard down. Gazing at the Statue of Liberty, Castro denied that he was a revolutionary and bitterly urged the American masses to rise up and tear down the statue in the name of freedom.

Times Square has far fewer billboards and no videos, but it does have the giant Horn and Hardart Automat which opened just that year, where food comes from banks of vending machines giving celebrating crowds a view of the amazing world of tomorrow for the world of 1912 is after all like our own. We can open a door into the past, but we cannot escape the present.

The Presidential election of 1912, like that of 2012, ended in disaster. Both Taft and Roosevelt lost and Woodrow Wilson won. In the White House, President Taft met with cabinet members and diplomats for a final reception.

Woodrow Wilson, who would lead America into a bloody and senseless war, subvert its Constitution, and begin the process of making global government and statism into the national religion of his party, was optimistic about the new year. "Thirteen is my lucky number," he said. "It is curious how the number 13 has figured in my life and never with bad fortune."

Americans of 2013 face the lightbulb ban. Americans of 1913 were confronted with the matchstick ban as the Esch bill in Congress outlawed phosphorus "strike 'em on your pants" matches by imposing a $1,000 tax on them. This was deemed to be Constitutional. In Indianapolis, the train carrying union leaders guilty of the dynamite plot was making its secret way to Federal prison even while the lawyers of the dynamiters vowed to appeal.

The passing year, a century past, had its distinct echoes in our own time. There had been, what the men of the time, thought of as wars, yet they could not even conceive of the wars shortly to come. There were the usual dry news items about the collapse of the government in Spain, a war and an economic crisis in distant parts of the world that did not concern them.

A recession was here, after several panics, and though there was plenty of cheer, there was also plenty of worry. The Federal Reserve Act would be signed at the end of 1913, partly in response to the economic crisis.

Socialism was on the march with the Socialist Party having doubled its votes in the national election.  All three major candidates, Wilson, Roosevelt and Taft, had warned that the country was drifting toward Socialism and that they were the only ones who could stop it. The influence of corporations was heatedly debated and the Catholic Church clashed with Socialists.

"Unless Socialism is checked," Professor Albert Bushnell Hart warned, "within sixteen years there will be a Socialist President of the United States." Hart was off by four years. Hoover won in 1928. FDR won in 1932.

At New York City's May Day rally, the American flag was torn down and replaced with the red flag, to cries of, "Take down that dirty rag" and "We don't recognize that flag." The site of the rally was Union Square, presently one of the locations where the rag ends of Occupy Wall Street hangs out.

There was tension on the Mexican border and alarm over Socialist successes in German elections. An obscure fellow with the silly name of Lenin had carved out a group with the even sillier name of the Bolsheviks. China became a Republic. New Mexico became a state, the African National Congress was founded and the Titanic sank. In our time it was merely the Costa Concordia.

There was bloody fighting in Benghazi where 20,000 Italian troops faced off against 20,000 Arabs and 8,000 Turks. The Italians had modern warships and armored vehicles, while the Muslim forces were supplied by voluntary donations and fighters crossing from Egypt and across North Africa to join in attacking the infidels.

The Italian-Turkish war has since been forgotten, except by the Italians, the Libyans and the Turks, but it featured the first strategic use of airships, ushering in a century of European aerial warfare.

There was a good deal going on while the horns were blown and men in heavy coats and wet hats made their way through the festivities.

World War I was two years away, but the Balkan War had already fired the first shots. The rest was just a matter of bringing the non-phosphorus matches closer to the kindling. The Anti-Saloon League was gathering strength for a nationwide effort that would hijack the political system and divide it into dry and wet, and, among other things, ram through the personal income tax.

Change was coming, and as in 1912, the country was no longer hopeful, it was wary. The century, for all its expected glamor, had been a difficult one. The future, political and economic, was unknown. Few knew exactly what was to come, but equally few were especially optimistic even when the champagne was flowing.

If we were to stop a reveler staggering out of a hotel, stand in his path and tell him that war was five years away and a great depression would come in on its tail, that liquor would be banned, crime would proliferate and a Socialist president would rule the United States for three terms, while wielding near absolute power, he might have decided to make his way to the recently constructed Manhattan Bridge for a swan dive into the river.

And yet we know that though all this is true, there is a deeper truth. For all those setbacks, the United States survived, and many of us look nostalgically toward a time that was every bit as uncertain and nerve-wracking as our own.

December 31, 1912 was a door that opened onto many things. December 31, 2012 is likewise, and if a man in shiny clothes from the year 2112 were to stop us on the street and spill out everything he knew about the next century, it is likely that there would be as much greatness as tragedy in that tale.

As the year sweeps across the earth, let us remember that history is more than the worst of its events, that all times bear the burden of their uncertainties, but also carry within them the seeds of greatness. Looking back on this time, it may be that it is not the defeats that we will recall, but how they readied us for the fight ahead. 2012 may be as forgotten as 1912, but 2016 and 2022 may endure in history.

America has not fallen, no more than it did when the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1912. Though it may not seem likely now, there are many great things ahead, and though the challenges at times seem insurmountable and the defeats many, another year and another century await us.


  1. Amen to everything you write, dear Daniel:)

    Happy New Year to you and all of your readers.

  2. I'd give anything to be in Times Square on New Years Eve. NYC would probably overwhelm me.

    Maybe Toronto lol. Besides, it's closer

  3. Chana1/1/13

    Am America Chai

  4. Happy New Year, Daniel, and Happy New Year to you, Keli Ata!

  5. Daniel...I so welcome your optimistic commentary as I have been finding it difficult to see any light at the end of this tunnel, let alone an end to the tunnel.

  6. Happy New Year, Daniel, you prolific and tireless son-of-a-gun.

  7. Bbee1/1/13

    jansuzanne took the words out of my mouth - I have been so discouraged since the Nov '12 election results and the idiocy happening now in DC that I have almost lost hope for this country. I too welcome your optimistic commentary and appreciated reading it on this first day of the new year. Lifted my spirits. Keep it coming.

    A blessed 2013 to you and your family.

  8. It is good to see your positive side shine forth, Mr. Knish. Keep up the good work.

  9. VA_Rancher1/1/13


    God Bless you and yours in 2013. Thank you for a positive taste of the past to shine some light on today.

    God Bless all your loyal readers as well this year. May the outnumber the grains of sand...

    Be well.

  10. Anonymous1/1/13

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. This look back over a century of history provided a look forward that is a perfect start to the new year; I'm now energized and hopeful.

    Thank you, Daniel. ~arasina~

    "Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world."

  11. Thank you all, VA Rancher, Genie, Arasina, Carey, Jan BBee,

    I'm glad you read the article in the spirit in which it was intended

  12. 1912 didn't have Hiroshima yet, and that can threaten the survival of the entire human race. I have a shooting range in my yard, and where I live gunshots going off don't draw much attention. During good weather they sometimes go off all day. It often reminds me of being back in Vietnam. For two hours yesterday, people I know who would not even own a gun a few years ago were shooting at my little range. That tells me that honest people are sick of being blamed for everything that goes wrong and they are finally tired of being pushed around. You are right; the nation will survive. But I think this century will bring some horrible and deadly struggles in this country. I don't know if the current form of government can survive it. I believe people are totally fed up with the crooks in DC and something will change. I'm old now, a combat vet, and no one pays much attention to my ramblings. I see regression in the future and a new age of barbarism before real peace and competent leadership returns.

  13. It is always a pleasure to read your column,in fact it's become my daily fix! You are the prophet of common sense in an age of great pessimism. Thank you for putting things in balance. Also, we must never forget that ultimately, God is still in charge.

  14. Daniel. I tip my hat to you for your columns and for being a student of history.

    Happy New Year to you and all your readers.

  15. Happy New Year, Daniel - that part which in recent history became a good friendly custom and fireworks and joy and calendar and annual cycle.

  16. Daniel,

    You are a sage, a prophet, the wisest of men amongst a society so unwise. May your collected works one day take their rightful place among the finest written works ever produced by an American (and I'd run them up against any of the world's best, to boot).
    I will be the first person anxiously in line waiting to buy a copy.

    God bless you and all yours. Reading your work will continue to be among my most favorite parts of life to look forward to in this New Year.

    -Michael Knudsen, aka "Hawkins1701"

  17. Happy New Year Daniel and a hardy "Sto lat!" to you and all you stand for :)

  18. In this late hour might I add that this blog is like an oasis of common sense in a churning sea of insanity. It begins with Daniel’s razor sharp perspective that cuts right through the fat to the bone of an issue and ends with the profound comments. Clearly there remains a strain of logic and reason. It’s encouraging, for sure.

    Happy New Year to you Daniel, and yours, and all who gather here. I salute you all. :-)

  19. Happy New Year, Sultan!

    Love your stuff, always excellent!

  20. Anonymous1/1/13

    Sto lat!

  21. Anonymous2/1/13

    I have to ask, Fidel Castro in 1912? Did I miss something or did you miss something? Thanks!

  22. Anonymous2/1/13

    Ah, Fidel's father? I must've had a one-track mind.

  23. Anonymous2/1/13

    He is referring to Cipriano Castro, former "president" of Venezuela. Actually a rather ruthless military dictator, with a rule marked by stormy relations with the USA, Germany, Britain, and Italy. Elihu Root (Secretary of State at the time) called him a "crazy brute".


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