To mark St. Patrick’s Day this week, we bring you this reprise of The Green Show: an offbeat, wide-ranging, and colorful look at a singular color in American history. Hear about the Green Mountain Boys in colonial America, the Irish Brigade’s emerald-green flags during the Civil War, and green superheroes fighting crime in 1970s comic books… just a few of the varied and verdant ways green has worked its way into American history and culture.
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**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this episode. There may be changes.**
PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. It’s the hue of Hollywood monsters, a cursed color for NASCAR drivers and fashion magazine editors. It’s a shade associated with envy, money, and toxic waste, but it’s also a vibrant symbol of the environment and healthy living, a staple of Irish-American pride. It’s the color that took Jimmy Carter to the White House in 1976, when other presidential candidates preferred to campaign in red, white, and blue. And every once in a while, it illuminates our literature.
BRIAN: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.”
PETER: This week on BackStory, a St. Patrick’s Day special. We’re seeing green in American history. Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. Picture a traffic light. You know, three round lenses, red on top, yellow in the middle, and green on the bottom, unless you live on Tipperary Hill in Syracuse, New York.
JOHN MCCARTHY: It’s a very unique traffic signal. It’s the only one in the United States that features the green lens over the red.
ED: This is John McCarthy, a photographer who grew up on Tipperary Hill. He’s looking at this traffic signal with the green light on top and the red on the bottom.
JOHN MCCARTHY: In the old days, when we were kids we used to–
ED: McCarthy remembers hanging out on the corner as a teenager and watching drivers pull up to the light. Some of them were colorblind, and they would stop at a green light.
JOHN MCCARTHY: And we’d all start yelling at them, saying go, go, go. And they’d say, no, no, we’re not. And they’d wave us off. And then the next thing you know, they pull out. It’s a red light, they pull out against the light, and you hear tires squealing. And we all start laughing, and say, yeah, we told you. We told you.
ED: So if having this green light on top has been such a safety hazard, why is it still there?
JOHN MCCARTHY: Now I don’t know this for a fact. All I know is that a myth was created around this light.
ED: To understand the myth, you need to know that Tipperary Hill in Syracuse has been an Irish neighborhood since the mid 1800s, when Irish immigrants settled in the area after working on the Erie Canal. In the 1920s, traffic signals started going up in cities across the country. But when Tipperary Hill got its light, the locals were not impressed.
JOHN MCCARTHY: There were a bunch of young guys around in their teens. And the first thing they decided to do when they saw the red lens above the green was to destroy it.
ED: The local legend has it that the guys in the neighborhood were outraged that red, which was associated with the English, had dominant placement above green, the Irish color. So they threw rocks at the light.
JOHN MCCARTHY: And so they kept breaking the light, and the city would have to come up the next day and fix the light, because it’s a busy intersection.
ED: A few weeks would go by. The kids break the light. The city fixes it. The kids break the light.
JOHN MCCARTHY: And finally, the alderman went to the city fathers and said, you know what? They’re not going to stop this unless you put that green lens over the red.
ED: The alderman was successful. The neighborhood got its upside down traffic light. Now John McCarthy doesn’t put much stock in this story about throwing stones, but a lot of other people do. In the 1990s, a local pub owner succeeded in getting a statue to the stone-throwers erected right next to the intersection. Whatever the details of the story, it’s clear that to people who see the light it’s a potent symbol of Irish immigrants turning traditional power dynamics on their head.
JOHN MCCARTHY: They left oppression. And when they ran up against that here in Syracuse and in America, they knew about the game. They knew. And they knew that there was strength in numbers, and they knew that they could change things if they stuck together.
ED: And all that history is encompassed up to this very day in a suspended little circle that’s colored green.
JOHN MCCARTHY: It’s not bright green. It’s not like a primary green. It’s kind of a terrible cyan color, if you really look at it.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers, and I’m here with fellow history gents Peter Onuf–
PETER: Hey, Ed.
ED: –and Brian Balogh.
BRIAN: Hey there, Ed.
ED: And today on the show, we’re doing something a little bit different. Most weeks we rip a topic from the headlines and spend an hour tracing its history over three centuries.
PETER: But today we’re mixing things up. And instead, we’ll be bringing you a sort of grab bag of stories with absolutely nothing in common except for the fact that they all have something to do with the color green.
BRIAN: That’s right, Peter. In honor of St. paddy’s Day, we’re dying our show green. We’ve got stories about an iconic green statue, an iconic green book, and an iconic green superhero. Plus we’re going to hear Peter recount his favorite deployment of the color green in the American Revolution. So sit back, put on your green eyeshades, get out your green stamps, and maybe put on your “Greensleeves” and journey with us down a historical river of green.
ED: In December 1862, Northern and Southern troops faced off on the slopes of Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Union assault on the Confederate-protected hill behind a stone wall would amount to a suicide mission. Among the Northern troops was a unit called the Irish Brigade, known by the emerald green flag its soldiers carried into battle.
BRIAN: That winter’s day in Fredericksburg, the brigade’s battle-worn emerald flag was making its way back to New York for some much-needed repair. And so the Irish troops instead put sprigs of boxwood in their caps to identify their Irish heritage. The Northern troops were slaughtered in that battle. But in the years after the war, it was commonly said that no one showed more bravery in the face of certain death than the troops with the green in their hats.
Craig Warren is an English professor at Penn State Erie. He says that this tale of Irish triumph hides a much darker story.
CRAIG WARREN: In fact, it was the low point in the war for most of Irish America. Of the 1,200 soldiers who took part in the battle, 545 were killed, wounded, or missing. And because the brigade suffered such horrendous casualties and because so many people on the home front lost loved ones and neighbors, it was ultimately one of the reasons that many Irish turned against the war. And many Irish-Americans decided that what had happened was that the Irish Brigade had been wantonly sacrificed during the battle by generals who saw them simply as cannon fodder.
BRIAN: And that’s because of their Irish heritage? That’s just because they were seen as something less than full citizens?
CRAIG WARREN: That’s right. As a result, they just decided the war– there was nothing that would benefit them. The war effort wasn’t bringing people around to see the Irish as true Americans. And so they turned their backs on that war effort and decided that it was not worth investing further time, energy, lives, and money into. And it’s not too much to say that you can draw a straight line between the Battle of Fredericksburg and the New York City draft riots of 1863.
BRIAN: Really? Now those happened in the summer of 1863? So they’re roughly six or seven months after the battle?
CRAIG WARREN: That’s correct. There were mass riots in the streets of New York. There was a mob of white protesters who did a number of destructive things, smashing buildings, finding African American freed men in the streets and lynching a number of them. It took actually a detachment of soldiers from the Army of the Potomac to come into the city and restore order. And at the end of this encounter, the vast majority of the rioters who were killed or were imprisoned were of Irish descent. And so this really was a black eye for the Irish-American population during the war and convinced a number of other Americans that in fact, they were not loyal to the war effort.
BRIAN: Now I’ve seen references to the Irish Brigade and the story of their heroism. I never see any reference to the draft riots or actually the response back home that you just described. So explain how that got erased from history.
CRAIG WARREN: What happened was after the war Irish Brigade veterans forged a remarkable body of literature that took the low point of the Irish Brigade’s history, the Battle of Fredericksburg, after which they effectively ceased to operate as a brigade, and transformed it into the Brigade’s most glorious moment. And they did this by publishing a series of memoirs that championed the Irish soldier, that portrayed him in the best light possible, and which showed his suffering and sacrifices that such places as Antietam and especially at Fredericksburg as his ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his American nation. And all of them want in memory of Irish participation in the war to remember the Irish Brigade soldiers on the field, not rioting Irishman back home in the city. And so they did everything they could to elevate and even mythologize the Irish soldier during the Civil War.
BRIAN: What do you mean elevate or mythologize? Do you have any examples?
CRAIG WARREN: One of the emphases that we find in the memoirs of Irish Brigade veterans is the story of the Irish Brigade encountering a full brigade of Confederate Irish, who supposedly recognized their countrymen by those sprigs of boxwood in their caps and who, though reluctant, fired into those ranks, standing by their Southern convictions. And that was enhanced and embellished in the post-war memoirs to be seen as this tragic, poignant, ironic conflict between Irishmen North and South.
BRIAN: So let me get this straight. Being loyal to the Confederacy proved that the Southern Irish soldiers were true Americans, even though they were fighting against America.
CRAIG WARREN: That’s right.
BRIAN: How does that work?
CRAIG WARREN: In the late 19th century, there is this move towards reconciliation. And there became over time this understanding that as long as one had participated in the Civil War and fought for one’s section and had stood up for one’s beliefs, then that person had demonstrated their loyalty to the American experiment. And each were fighting for American ideals, now maybe for the Union, maybe for the Confederacy. But the idea was that to have participated in the war was what mattered.
BRIAN: So in the mythology of what all of this meant– and, again, we’re looking back at this from roughly, let’s say, the 1890s– what this was saying from the Irish perspective was don’t worry. We will be loyal to the ideals and the principles of America. We are not going to be just loyal to our fellow Irishmen. We’re not going to participate in machine politics in the cities. We’re not going to hire Irish over other ethnicities. We are capable as Irish of being loyal, in fact dying for ideals and principles.
CRAIG WARREN: Exactly, yeah. The message was that, contrary to prewar beliefs that the Irish were not true Americans, that they were interested only in the stake of Ireland across the Atlantic, instead these men were willing to fight and die for their adopted country and for their homes, be it North or South, and that that was a stronger connection ultimately than the shared heritage.
BRIAN: And do you think that these memoirs helped with American acceptance of Irish immigrants in the late 19th century?
CRAIG WARREN: I believe so. And I think that their strategy worked. There was a wide-scale celebration of the Civil War veteran during the late 19th century and early 20th. And there was a receptive audience for stories about soldiers in uniform and their adventures and achievements and sacrifices. And so this story folds the Irish-American story into the larger story that we so often hear about the Civil War, and that is that it was a brothers’ war. And Irish memoirs stressed this as a way to show that they were as true Americans as any other citizens of the United States.
BRIAN: Craig Warren is a professor of English at Penn State Erie. We’ll post a link to his article about the Irish Brigade at backstoryradio.org.
PETER: We’re going to take a short break now. But don’t go away. When we got back, what the Statue of Liberty meant to Americans before it turned green.
ED: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.
CHRISTIAN: Hi, Backstory hosts. This is Christian from Hamden, Connecticut. I think one of the most important green things in American history is Nathanael Greene. He was one of Washington’s most trusted officers and was instrumental in fighting the Revolutionary War. Where would e be without the efforts of General Greene? Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory, the show that looks to history to explain the America of today. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re reflecting on episodes in American history that have something to do with the color green.
BRIAN: Our next story focuses on perhaps the most iconic green object in America, the Statue of Liberty. What you may not know is that the statute didn’t start out green. When it was installed in New York Harbor in 1886, the statue was actually brown, copper to be exact. Over the years, the copper oxidized. And by 1910, Lady Liberty had developed an interesting mottled look, half brown and half green. By 1920, she was completely covered in that familiar green patina.
PETER: At the very same time, the statue was also undergoing a transformation in meaning. Though today we associate the Statue of Liberty with immigration, Americans at the dedication ceremony were not much concerned with welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. BackStory producer Jess Engebretson has the story of how the statute changed from an austere symbol of republican values to a monument known as the Mother of Exiles.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: It all started in 1865 at a French dinner party near Versailles. The guests, mostly intellectuals and artists, were not fond of the current French government, a repressive regime headed by Emperor Napoleon III. They wanted to find some way to celebrate the values important to them.
PETER SKERRY: We’re talking about liberal values.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: This is Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College.
PETER SKERRY: Individual rights, the importance of freedom of the press, freedom of speech.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Those values were not flourishing in France. But they did seem to be flourishing in the US, which had just abolished slavery. And so the dinner guests dreamed up a grand gesture that would help connect France to the American story of expanding freedoms, a statue of liberty lifting a torch and crushing a broken chain beneath her feet. It would be a gift from French citizens to the US, representing Franco-American friendship, the expansion of liberties in both countries, and the hope for world peace. But one thing it wouldn’t represent was immigration.
PETER SKERRY: The notion of the United States as a refuge or a goal for migrants wasn’t part of what the French liberals had in mind at all.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Nor were Americans particularly pushing the idea of US as refuge. By the time the statue was finally inaugurated, 20 years had passed. It was the fall of 1886, and Americans were feeling decidedly skeptical about immigration. That spring, the Haymarket bombing in Chicago had killed 11 people and injured dozens more. The actual bomb thrower was never identified, but eight men were convicted for conspiracy. Six of them were immigrants.
So five months later at the Statue of Liberty’s inaugural festivities, Haymarket was still on many Americans’ minds. The main speaker made sure to emphasize that the US was only interested in welcoming some immigrants.
MALE SPEAKER: “There is room in America and brotherhood for all who will support our institutions and aid in our development. But those who come to disturb our peace and dethrone our laws are aliens and enemies forever.”
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Three years later, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly wrote a similarly anxious poem about the statue, its title “Ungarded Gates”
FEMALE SPEAKER: “Oh, Liberty, white Goddess. Is it well to leave the gates unguarded? On thy breast fold sorrow’s children. Soothe the hurts of fate. Lift the downtrodden. But with hand of steel, stay those who to the sacred portals come to waste the gifts of freedom. Have a care less–”
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Of course today there’s another poem associated with the Statue of Liberty.
FEMALE SPEAKER: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
JESS ENGEBRETSON: This sonnet was written by Emma Lazarus to commemorate the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing violence in Russia. It was auctioned off to help support the Statue of Liberty’s installation, but it didn’t have a direct connection to the statue until 17 years later when a friend of Lazarus had a plaque made.
PETER SKERRY: And that plaque is put in some relatively obscure place on the inside of the pedestal in 1903. And there it sits for several decades, relatively unnoted.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: During those decades, immigration to the US plummeted. A new quota system introduced in 1924 sharply limited admission from what many believe to be undesirable groups, Asians, Jews, southeastern Europeans. But meanwhile, Lady Liberty was as popular as ever.
PETER SKERRY: On the 50th anniversary of the statute, which would have been 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to celebrate that 50th anniversary. And nothing was mentioned about Emma Lazarus’ sonnet. Nothing was mentioned about immigration or refugees.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: But around the same time, some people were starting to connect the statue with immigration and with refugees in particular. One of them was a journalist named Louis Adamic, who wrote books with names like America and the Refugees. He was especially concerned about the rise of Nazism in Germany and argued that the US should admit many more Jewish refugees. But in 1939, a bill that would have allowed an additional 20,000 German Jewish children into the country died in committee. The same year, a Fortune Magazine poll suggested that 83% of Americans favored retaining the limits on immigration.
It wasn’t until after the war that Adamic’s position became mainstream. Footage of US troops liberating Nazi concentration camps reinforced many Americans’ sense that their country was on the side of freedom. But it also raised troubling questions about the US government’s resistance to admitting refugees before the war. That blend of pride and uneasiness led many to embrace a new more welcoming version of liberty.
PETER SKERRY: In 1945, the bronze tablet with the Emma Lazarus sonnet on it that had been inside the pedestal in a rather obscure place was removed and put outside in a prominent place beside the main entrance to the statue.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: The move solidified the association between immigration and the statute. Lady Liberty was no longer the white Goddess. Instead, she was the Mother of Exiles. And in 1965, the restrictive quota system was replaced by a new law, the baseline for current immigration policy. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed that bill into law, he did so, where else, at the Statute of Liberty.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Over my shoulders here, you can see Ellis Island, whose vacant corridors echo today the joyous sound of long-ago voices. And today we can all believe that the lamp of this grand old lady is brighter today and the golden door that she guards gleans more brilliantly in the light of an increased liberty for the people from all countries.
BRIAN: Jess Engebretson is one of our producers. Helping her tell the story was Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College. We’ll link to his article about the Statue of Liberty’s changing meaning at backstoryradio.org.
ED: In the early and mid 20th century, African Americans often had a hard time when they travelled. Many hotels, gas stations, and restaurants both in the North and the South refused to serve black patrons. So in the early 1930s, a New York City postman named Victor Green began collecting contact information for local businesses that would serve African Americans. He figured that by collecting and publishing this information he could help others avoid the inconvenience and the humiliation of being turned away.
BRIAN: Green soon expanded the project to cover the entire country. In 1936, he published the first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book, the Green Book for short. It looks something like a phone book with the names and addresses of friendly businesses as well as private homes willing to lodge African American visitors.
ED: The Green Book was published for decades and became a staple of African American households. But Victor Green hoped that eventually his book would become irrelevant. In the introduction, he imagined, quote, “a day some time in the near future when this guide will not have to be published, when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.”
BRIAN: With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Green Book ceased publication for good. Ironically, letters from Northern blacks recounting their experiences with discrimination on the nation’s roadways may have played a role in getting that landmark legislation passed. Historian Susan Rugh has researched these letters. In an interview from a few years back, she told us about how vacationing blacks helped shape one of the century’s most important political debates.
SUSAN RUGH: When I first started working on this, people would say, blacks vacationed? And I began to resent that as a very racist remark. Of course they vacationed. Half the households in the United States after the war own a car. By 1960, that’s 3/4 or 80% of households. And the idea of the car for blacks was if we have a car then we don’t have to sit in the Jim Crow section on the train.
SUSAN RUGH: It promised them more freedom, more opportunity. And so to randomly run into this discrimination must have been very sobering.
MALE SPEAKER: “Dear madam, I’m writing to find out if something can be done, maybe bringing a suit against Mobile Oil Company because of an incident that happened in Shreveport, Louisiana.”
SUSAN RUGH: The media may have focused its attention on buses and the more violent confrontations. These were everyday confrontations, what I call the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, who would just write in. And they had all of this evidence of people being discriminated against.
MALE SPEAKER: “We asked for the restrooms and were informed they didn’t have restroom facilities for colored.”
FEMALE SPEAKER: “Dear sir, I am a member of the NAACP.”
SUSAN RUGH: The letters were sent to headquarters a lot of them, especially in the most egregious cases. And Thurgood Marshall, early on in the ’50s before he was appointed to the court, would look at them. Constance Baker Motley would look at them. And they did take action in courts.
FEMALE SPEAKER: “The attendant or manager left the lugs loose deliberately. And when we was a good ways out on Highway 67, the wheel ran off. The rim contacted the cement–”
FEMALE SPEAKER: “I cannot tell you what handicaps are endorsed by Negro motorist traveling through the South, often for long and weary miles, unable to be sure of finding adequate accommodations for taking care of the normal physiological functions of the body and for rest–”
MALE SPEAKER: “The first two places displayed vacancy signs, but we were unable to get accommodations because they had been reserved.”
SUSAN RUGH: They used these guidebooks, the Green guide to Negro tourism and travel guide and the other guides in part to tell them where they could stay and not be turned away. And the slogan of one of those books is vacation without humiliation.
MALE SPEAKER: “People to the left, the right, in front and behind were served. Finally, I sensed that we were being ignored.”
SUSAN RUGH: If you think of all the black people who packed their lunch in their car, who couldn’t buy lodging, that was adding up. And this is where the change in travel and transportation industry comes through. Because as it becomes corporate and as it becomes chains, then the NAACP puts pressure on chains like Hilton at the top, where some of these people went to conventions to get change in the South and throughout the country.
MALE SPEAKER: “They were on their way to the ladies’ restrooms that were in plain sight and had to be called back. We then had to stop on the highway, like animals. We are members of the NAACP.”
SUSAN RUGH: My sense is that the Civil Rights leaders recognized the power of the family image in a time when the family was the dominant image of domesticity, this nuclear family. And I think they played to that in the hearings. And certainly Roy Wilkins plays to that and says, imagine a family on vacation.
And this is July when he’s talking. It’s hot in Washington. These senators are probably thinking, when is the congressional break? I’m going to go on vacation. And so they have families, and they can relate to this stranded family that’s sleeping in its car.
BRIAN: It must have had an incredibly powerful impact on political leaders, at least thinking about how their constituents are going to feel about this.
SUSAN RUGH: It was powerful enough for them to vote for the Civil Rights Act, so I think it was effective.
FEMALE SPEAKER: “I venture to predict that it will not be too much longer before concentrated actions is taken by Negro Americans to combat this evil which has held sway for far too long along the nation’s highways. Sincerely yours, Mrs. Jewell L. Gresham, doctoral student, Columbia University.”
BRIAN: Susan Rugh is a historian at Brigham Young University. Her book is Are We There Yet?, the Golden Age of American Family Vacations.
ED: It’s time for another quick break. When we get back, Peter Onuf will make the case for his favorite historical personage with a green connection. And just so you won’t be disappointed, it’s not the Jolly Green Giant nor the Hulk nor even Gumby.
PETER: So keep listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
CATHERINE BALL: Hello. My name is Catherine Ball. I’m calling from the Chicago suburbs by way of Peoria by way of Tennessee. What I think is the most important green for American history is the idea of greener pastures, the idea that Americans, even as immigrants, have felt the desire to go from one place to the next in search of something better, whether it’s for a job or for land or for opportunity, the idea that we’re always looking for the next thing, the next green thing. Thank you very much. Goodbye.
PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re marking St. Patrick’s Day with an entire episode devoted to the color green. Now so far we’ve been hearing about things that happened in the 20th century and the 19th century. But our 18th century guy, Peter Onuf, has been chomping at the bit here.
ED: I think they had bits in the 18th century. He says this is the perfect opportunity to revive a story that is key to understanding the founding of our nation, even though it’s a story that’s been all but forgotten. And it’s all tied, very conveniently, to the color green.
BRIAN: All right. So what is that green thing that Peter’s so worked up about? It’s the Green Mountain Boys.
ED: I love their bluegrass album. [LAUGHS]
BRIAN: So Peter–
BRIAN: –our producers, probably very unwisely, have agreed to give you the floor.
BRIAN: You’re going to make your case. We’re going to stay out of the way.
PETER: All right.
BRIAN: OK? But first, you’ve got to let Ed and I sketch the story, as we kind of know it, right, Ed?
BRIAN: OK. It takes place in the green mountains in a place that’s going to be called Vermont.
PETER: Green, green mountains, yeah.
BRIAN: The story starts in 1749, and there is no Vermont. But there’s a New Hampshire.
BRIAN: And the governor of New Hampshire’s doing what governors in those days did. He’s handing out land. He’s basically selling land. That’s how states got revenues. No problem, right?
BRIAN: Well, there is a problem, because New York is selling the same land.
PETER: What is that?
BRIAN: Yeah. That’s a real problem. And New York gets in this huge fight and says, New Hampshire, you can’t be selling this land. We’re selling this land.
ED: And so it gets such a huge fight, it has to go back to daddy, back over in London in 1764. And they say, New York, you’re right. You had this land before. And suddenly, all those New Hampshire claims are pretty worthless.
And this is where our main character enters the scene, Ethan Allen. He’s a small-time farmer from Connecticut. He starts buying up a bunch of these worthless New Hampshire claims on the cheap.
BRIAN: And he knew what he was doing, right, Ed? He knew he was getting a deal.
ED: Oh, yeah. Because you’re paying so little, it had to be a deal, right?
ED: So he heads back up to the land in question, there on the western side of the Connecticut River. And with some relatives, he puts together a militia. They call themselves– you guessed it– the Green Mountain Boys. And for the next several years, they terrorize the settlers from New York.
They burn their cabins. They destroy their crops. They basically dare them to stick around.
BRIAN: Yeah. Well, this goes on for several years. And everybody knows New York’s a much bigger powerful state. They are about ready to squash this pain in the neck militia when guess what happens? The American Revolution breaks out.
ED: Didn’t see that coming.
BRIAN: At this point, Allen, always the opportunist, takes his so-called militia, this rag-tag team, and he storms the British fort, Fort Ticonderoga, capturing it, seizing all the–
ED: That’s where they kept all the pencils, right?
BRIAN: All right. So this guy who’s a speculator and kind of a vigilante, all of a sudden he’s a war hero in our fight with the British.
ED: So it wasn’t a long before Allen was captured by the British in a different battle somewhere else. And while he’s in prison, his compatriots make a play for statehood. They call themselves Vermont, a kind of imagined French-ified version of green mountains. But the new American government says, no, despite your cool name you’re still in New York.
And this goes on for 14 years. Allen gets out of prison. He’s once more at the helm of the statehood movement. And finally, in 1791 the new American government says, fine. We need some ice cream. Vermont can join our union. Vermont becomes the 14th state, but by that point Ethan Allen’s already dead.
ED: So Peter, two questions for you. One, did Brian and I get the story right?
ED: And two, why do you think this opportunistic thug is so key to our understanding–
PETER: Ooh. That hurt. That hurt.
ED: –the story of America’s founding and the story of green?
PETER: Yeah. Yeah. What I want to focus on is Ethan Allen, how he represents what, I think, is really the spirit for better and for worse of the American Revolution. And the big picture for me, of course it’s property. We’ve talked about he’s a greedy speculator and he’s an opportunist. Well, who isn’t? George Washington, even the sainted Thomas Jefferson, everybody’s in it for the land.
Because, after all, you think about it. You don’t need land to guarantee your civic existence, that is your citizenship is not contingent on your owning that farm out there. No, land is not important in that way anymore. But it is everything in Ethan Allen’s day. And what the settlers of Vermont want, the founders of Vermont want, they want secure title in their land so they can live decent lives.
BRIAN: Hey, if he wanted a secure title, he should have gone to a state that could provide it–
BRIAN: –not to some cockamamie land speculation deal, Peter.
PETER: Now hold it. I want you to know about New York. Under New York, we have these enormous manors with tenants who don’t own their own land.
PETER: And the big land claimants in the green mountains, in what were called the New Hampshire Grants, they want to monopolize the land. The people who were coming up from Connecticut, like Ethan Allen, are trying to take advantage–
BRIAN: They’re salt of the earth.
PETER: Well, they’re just Yankee settlers, OK? And they want to establish farms, They want to establish towns, and that’s where we get to the new state movement. Vermont had a constitution in 1777. It was functioning as a state, and it was looking around for opportunities. If you don’t want us, they say to Congress, you don’t want Vermont to be the 14th state in your mighty Union, we will take our marbles, and we’ll see maybe we can play ball. I mixing metaphors. Maybe we can play marbles with the British Empire in Canada.
BRIAN: Sounds more like Benedict Arnold than Ethan Allen to me, Peter.
PETER: What Ethan Allen and his allies want is recognition. That’s what it’s all about.
BRIAN: So he wanted a network. He wanted an empire to tie into, basically.
PETER: Absolutely. Because if you don’t get recognized, even that sovereign claiming, hey, this is my property, well, who says it’s your property?
BRIAN: I get it. Land defines the patriotic. Land defines the citizen.
PETER: Yeah. But then you have to justify it, Brian. That’s the big challenge. The ultimate justification used to be that it came from a grant from the king. But now we’re not saying that anymore. If it’s not the king, who is it?
I’ll tell you who it is. It’s God. What kind of God? What’s the God who gives good title? It’s nature’s God, as Jefferson calls him. It’s the God who has organized this marvelous universe. It’s the God who has made this green Earth, who has given us this mountain home. And this is the first American colony or state that calls itself after the land itself. It’s not New Hampshire. It’s not named after some kind of Indian name. It’s not Massachusetts. It is the land itself speaking through Ethan Allen, who’s channelling nature’s God.
We don’t need a king to be the agent of God, some pseudo divine right king to say, oh, all the land was mine. I grant this to you. No. We are taking title from God directly, as he meant to us to take it. Because we are improving the land. We are supporting our families.
BRIAN: So Peter, I’m pretty much sold. But tell me why the next Joe Schmo, regular salt of the earth guy can’t come along and take away Ethan Allen’s land. This interpreting God’s will thing sounds pretty dangerous to me.
PETER: Well, you’re exactly right. The central problem of the Revolution is everybody could start a country. In fact, that’s what’s happening in the Connecticut River Valley. Towns in New Hampshire, in Vermont are voting. Which state will they be a part of? Brattleboro, well, they vote to be part of New York. This is town sovereignty.
Well, think. You could break up towns. You could have precinct sovereignty. We could have true anarchy, which is the thing that everybody fears. And then you won’t have property.
BRIAN: OK. So maybe the answer to my other question will answer everything. Because earlier in what I thought was going to be a short platform for you, you said that Ethan Allen had gone in search of a network of an empire, something larger that would recognize him.
PETER: That’s right.
BRIAN: So you’ve got to give up a little bit if your direct line to God, really.
PETER: Right. But what he’s saying is that all Americans have an interest in supporting this idea of the sovereignty of the people, of their natural right to their own land. Now no American’s going to argue with that. They just argue with the implications of that.
And so what I’m saying is that Ethan Allen represents, I think, the three important dimensions of the American Revolution. First, that need to establish effective control over land, secure property rights against taxation, against other property claimants to get clear title. Second, to get that title secured in a collective security arrangement of a Union that will then guarantee state jurisdictions–
BRIAN: Although that happens after he dies.
PETER: Right. And then the third thing is to affirm the fundamental principle of the Revolution, and that is the right of the people by nature, by nature’s God, to govern themselves on their own land. That is the justification. That’s the ultimate principle.
And that’s what Ethan Allen really cares about. He doesn’t care about the vast acres he accumulates. He doesn’t accumulate vast acres. He doesn’t own slaves. He doesn’t have a vast plantation, like Thomas Jefferson. But what he has achieved is independence as a farmer. His neighbors have independence, and they have clubbed together to secure their rights and then to vindicate those rights through the recognition of the other states in the Union.
New York comes to terms. They know they’re not going to get the New Hampshire Grants back, and New York capitulates. And it’s just a matter of time before they cut the deal. They make the treaty. Vermont becomes part of the Union.
BRIAN: Go green. If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory, and we’re devoting today’s show to stories about the past that have something to do with the color green.
In the early 1960s, new comic book heroes like Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men, all created by Stan Lee and Marvel comics, seemed to be rescuing the industry from a sales slump in the 1950s. But as the ’60s progressed, sales declined yet again. The Vietnam War, Civil Rights struggle, and overall generational upheaval had realigned what young people were looking for. They want to comic books to take on the issues they were facing every day.
PETER: So comic, books well, they turned the page. By the early 1970s, Iron Man had shut down his company’s weapons division. Captain America teamed up with a black superhero whose day job was being a social worker in Harlem. But perhaps no comic represented the shift better than a series that featured two green superheroes who had gotten their start nearly 30 years before, Green Lantern and Green Arrow. BackStory producer Andrew Parsons has the story.
ANDREW PARSONS: In early 1970, Denny O’Neil walked in DC Comics for his weekly editorial meeting. DC was the home of Batman and Superman. But when he got there, his editor put a different hero on the table.
DENNY O’NEIL: He said, in effect, that the Green Lantern book was floundering. So he asked me if I had any ideas.
ANDREW PARSONS: The answer was yes. At 30 years old, O’Neil was part of a new generation of comic writers filling the places of pioneers who had been promoted to editors. And this new generation was young enough to be part of the highly political counterculture protesting the Vietnam War. But protests weren’t really O’Neil’s style.
DENNY O’NEIL: I was never going to be a fiery leader and overthrow The Man. But I felt I should do something, and I had access to comic books, and I kind of had been given a blank slate.
ANDREW PARSONS: Green Lantern had been created in the early ’40s and was basically an intergalactic cop. To Denny O’Neil, he was an establishment guy, always busy fighting villains in other galaxies for an ancient alien police force. So O’Neil decided that the series would bring Lantern down from space and educate him about what was going on in America, racism, drugs, violence, pollution. But he also wanted a more anti-establishment voice of justice, so he revived another ’40s superhero, one that looked a lot like Robin Hood, Green Arrow.
DENNY O’NEIL: Green Arrow represented the counterculture. For him, authority would damn well have to prove itself.
ANDREW PARSONS: But what really made the Green Lantern/Green Arrow alliance different was the villains. Previously, Green Lantern had fought powerful aliens and mad scientists. One of his nemeses had a bulging oversized brain with telekinetic powers. Denny O’Neil’s new portrait of evil looked quite a bit different.
DENNY O’NEIL: He’s overweight, he sneers, he smokes a big smelly cigar, and he reeks arrogance.
ANDREW PARSONS: The bad guy he’s describing? A slum lord. In the series’ first issue, an evil inner city building owner named Jubal Slade is trying to evict African American tenants. At first, Green Lantern sides with him, only to be called a Nazi by Green Arrow. But Lantern’s eyes are eventually opened.
DENNY O’NEIL: And one of the people who lives in this ghetto is saying, I’ve been reading about you, how you work for the blue skins, how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins. You’ve done considerable for the purple skins. The only other skins you never bothered with, the black skins. I want to know, how come? Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern. And in the last panel, Green Lantern, with his head bowed, saying, I can’t. And the rest of it is Green Lantern going against this slum lord.
ANDREW PARSONS: But that doesn’t mean he uses many superpowers. After the slum lord hires men to kill the two superheroes, Green Lantern and Green Arrow team up with the local district attorney to help take Slade down.
DENNY O’NEIL: That kind of set the tone for the rest of the series.
ANDREW PARSONS: Honestly, when I read this issue it struck me as kind of like an afterschool special, a bit cheesy and oddly overt. There is a bunch of action and adventure, the Green Arrow is also prone to these mini speeches about injustice. In one, he starts out with a line about how a good black man was killed in Memphis and a good white man in Los Angeles. Here’s Denny O’Neil describing the rest.
DENNY O’NEIL: Something is wrong. Something is killing us all. Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls. In the background behind Green Arrow is Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
BRADFORD WRIGHT: Well, the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series got a lot of attention.
ANDREW PARSONS: This is historian Bradford Wright. He wrote a book on the history of comics.
BRADFORD WRIGHT: The mainstream press ran a lot of stories on it, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek. And the term that came out of this, coined by the media anyway, was relevance to characterize these comic books that had, quote, “grown up.”
ANDREW PARSONS: The series wasn’t the first in the relevance trend. But Green Lantern/Green Arrow possessed more gall. It was directly calling out authority figures for acts of injustice. And it didn’t take long for politicians to recognize the utility of comic books for their own messaging campaigns. New York City mayor John Lindsay bought a page in DC Comics, and the Nixon administration asked Marvel to put an anti-drug message in Spiderman, a message Green Lantern and Green Arrow were quick to pick up on.
BRADFORD WRIGHT: And not too subtly. You had on the cover of Green Lantern/Green Arrow Speedy, Green Arrow’s sidekick, shooting up with heroin. And Green Arrow discovers that his sidekick is a junkie.
ANDREW PARSONS: Though the series had critical acclaim, it only lasted a few years. By the mid ’70s, the industry was ready to move on.
DENNY O’NEIL: One day I came in, and we were not going to do the book anymore.
BRADFORD WRIGHT: I think kind of the sense of what comic book superheroes are really supposed to do had been a little bit muddled during the whole relevance trend. Essentially, I think comic book makers had concluded that their readers wanted less proselytizing and more punching from their superheroes.
ANDREW PARSONS: In other words, superheroes had kind of stopped being superheroes. These days, Green Lantern’s still around. But he’s flying without his liberal partner and is battling outside supervillains again. In the 2011 Green Lantern movie, one of the members of the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps warns of an evil lifeforce that’s–
SINESTRO: An enemy we don’t yet fully understand. We do know it’s powerful enough to destroy entire civilizations.
ANDREW PARSONS: It’s a far cry from the villains of the relevance trend, where bad guys were recognizable people with recognizable agendas. Now, in the age of the War on Terror, government surveillance, and the great recession, maybe we’re just more comfortable with villains in the shadows, ones we don’t fully understand.
ED: Andrew Parsons is one of our producers. You can read more about that 1970s relevance trend in Bradford Wright’s book, Comic Book Nation. We’ll post a link to that, along with a few frames from the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series, at backstoryradio.org.
PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. But before we go, one last thing. You might remember that on our recent Oscars show we opened up voting for the HISTIE, the film that best captures a historical subject. You all have weighed in with your votes and your reasons. And so without further ado, we present the first annual HISTIE Awards. Brian?
BRIAN: Ed, could you hand me the envelope, please?
ED: Here you go, Brian.
BRIAN: Why is it green, Ed?
All right. The winner of the first annual HISTIE is [HUMMING] 12 Years a Slave.
BRIAN: And it’s a landslide, it came in with a whopping 72% of the vote. And I have to acknowledge that was Ed’s pick.
PETER: Thanks so much to everyone who shared their thoughts on this year’s Oscar nominees. As always, we’d also love to hear your thoughts about today’s show. Let us know what you think is the most important green thing in American history. You can weigh in at backstoryradio.org or reach us by email at email@example.com. Don’t be a stranger.
[MUSIC – “BEIN’ GREEN” BY VAN MORRISON]
BRIAN: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Jesse Dukes. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. Special thanks to Peter Norton, John Miller, Ethan [? Cheale, ?] and Sean Howe. A special shout-out to the Jolly Green Giant. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
ED: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties and History Channel, history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.