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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. We say "Happy New Year" to each other, but we know it won't be much different than 2013. Our betters in DC will keep sniping at each other, the mid-term elections will bring accusations of vicious designs on the country, and the President will spend more time trying to wedge the Federal government between the haves and have nots
    We'll enjoy the Olympics and cheer for the Americans, all the while wishing that countries could get along together for more than a few weeks every four years.
    The progressives on the East and West coast will pass more looney laws, while inside the country others will encourage inhaling a drug that affects the mind because they found a way to enrich the government coffers by taxing the drug.

    This is getting depressing. Surely there is something good about to happen, anything. .

  2. December 31, 1912 was a door that opened onto many things. December 31, 2012 is likewise, ....

    Daniel: Did you intend to write 2013 or 2012? It doesn't change the message, only the timeline.

  3. it's last year's article, but applies reasonably well

  4. Thank you, Daniel, for this lovely and informative walk down memory lane.

  5. Anonymous1/1/14

    I love the way you're able to paint a picture of another time so beautifully. Another gem from the man from J'lem.

    Happy New Year


  6. Anonymous1/1/14

    Greenfield, you finally did it. Wonderful. I’m uplifted and renewed.

    Through all the unnerving insight that you give us, I’ve been waiting, for all the time that I’ve been reading your stuff, for the extra component. That thing would be: historical context.

    The piece is merely about 1500 words and well before I’d reached the last paragraph, I knew that God was still in his heaven and all was still right with the world. What can these wretched tyrants do to us that has not been done already? Obama and Islam cannot win unless we capitulate. This pathetic little man can strut his hour upon the stage, but he cannot prevail. Just as the year turns so does history. And when he’s vanquished, another will be there to take his place, and our descendants must deal with that. The struggle is eternal. Into each life a little rain must fall.

    We all live in interesting times. Why would we have it otherwise?

    You've raised the bar now. Good job you've got broad shoulders.


  7. it's important to remember that evil never triumphs

    it can inflict harm, but even at worst it dies off and destroys its host society reducing them from civilization

    good will go on building and triumphing as evil falls

  8. Anonymous1/1/14

    Amen. Thank you.

  9. Anonymous1/1/14

    Thank you for attempting to place a positive spin on the present and future. History is a reflection on the reality that evil exists and good men fight it.


  10. Happy new year, friend.

    While much of your comparison between today and yesteryear is accurate, much that went unsaid was quite different. Just look at how people dressed back then, and today. See how faith in God differs today from then. See how today's culture has so deteriorated, to the point where America may as well compare with Sodom.

    Nonetheless, as you intimate, we have it in our own potential to revive and improve.

    As a believer in the prophetic promises in Torah and Talmud I just want to add one final, main point, and that is, that the only real solution to ALL of Man's travails is - Moshiach now!

  11. My Great-Great Grandfather, Willis Shattuck, died at age 76, after a protracted illness, on the evening of December 22, 1912. A simple farm laborer who lived his entire life in a small town in upstate NY, he fathered 13 children and was a veteran of the Civil War. He was captured at the battle of Salem Church, VA, exchanged, and then enlisted in another regiment to continue his service until war's end. He was witness to unthinkable scenes of carnage and suffering in a war that nearly destroyed the Republic, several financial panics and depressions, the settlement of the western frontier, and many extraordinary advances in technology in the post-war years. He was a grateful recipient of the Federal government's first entitlement program, a veteran's pension. He was a loyal member of the G.A.R., the powerful organization that lobbied for the veterans benefits which eventually represented almost half of all Federal outlays. Willis was also a life long Republican. The seeds of our national problems certainly pre-date Socialism.

  12. Socialism is the expression of a much older point of view. The battles of it have gone on for all of American history.

  13. Anonymous1/1/14

    Terrific! Thank you and best wishes for the new year.

  14. Nice, your interesting verbal snapshot of history so clearly depicting man's inability to see the course of future events. Nevertheless A Happy 2014.

  15. And so say we all. Onward. Excelsior.

  16. Anonymous1/1/14

    Thanks for a fine historical perspective. I appreciate your capacity for hope and recognition of the verities of history. Would that it were so...

    With that said, Americans are less "American" now than they were 100 years ago. I doubt Americans of that era would see many similarities in values, demographics, economics, etc held in common with today's "Americans".

    Apples and oranges, Mr. Greenfield. These are late Republic era days and you are hearkening back to an earlier Republican period. All I see is a steady degradation that began mid 19th century and has never stopped sliding. iPads nothwithstanding...

  17. Anonymous1/1/14

    Courage is contagious--Daniel Ellsberg.

    That's my New Year resolution, to be more courageous. Hopefully others will, too, and things in this world will improve.


  18. Thank you for your beautiful writing, Mr. Greenfield. This piece is just wonderful.

  19. Anonymous1/1/14

    If we are truly fortunate, a visitor from 2112 would tell us the tale of how the "Elder Race of Man" cast down the collectivist Red Star banner of the Solar Federation, reclaiming not only their birthright, but the liberty that is the birthright of all those who are willing to earn it.

  20. Michael Hopkins1/1/14

    One of the most intelligently optimist perspectives I've had the pleasure to read!
    Thank you very much!


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