Dearstyne focuses on 'eureka moments' in New York history

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Bruce W. Dearstyne, who had a career at the State Archives, says, “There’s something almost visceral, an emotional tingly charge when you see something written 100 years ago.”

Bruce W. Dearstyne believes that New Yorkers are resilient.

Five years of assiduous research culminated in his just-published book, “The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History.”

Dearstyne has described 15 dramatic events in the state’s history and pulled from them common themes that describe New York’s spirit. These range from themes like “New York politics are blurred” to “The quest for social justice requires energy and sacrifice.”

“What came through clearest is resilience,” said Dearstyne. The book starts where the state did, with its constitution in 1777, which Dearstyne sees as the best example of resilience.

“That notion of ‘state’ was just coming into being,” he said. “New York wasn’t a colony anymore. There was a cloud of uncertainty at the time.”

Members of the Provincial Congress kept working on the state’s constitution even as British royal forces advanced. New York City was occupied by the British and there were invasions from the north and west.

“As the year goes by, the Provincial Congress is running to White Plains, then north to Kingston, writing a constitution as they went...They were in such a rush, there was no public ratification, they just proclaimed it. And there was no time for a clean copy. There are scratch-outs and writing in the margins,” he said, describing the original New York constitution. “It’s in the State Archives.”

Dearstyne, who worked as a program director at the New York State Archives, believes in the power of original sources.

“There’s something almost visceral, an emotional tingly charge when you see something written 100 years ago,” said Dearstyne, “written by someone with no expectation you were going to come along 100 years later and see it...There it is!”

To Dearstyne, the characters that people history are as real as neighbors or family members. He speaks of the many details of their lives with relish.  Describing the unexpected election of New York’s first governor over the presumed winner Philip Schuyler, Dearstyne says, “In the end, an obscure guy, George Clinton won; he was a continental commander in the southern part of the state. The soldiers voted. The story is, the troops didn’t like Schuyler; the troops liked Clinton.”

Clinton turned out to be “immensely important,” setting up state government and serving as governor for 21 years before becoming vice president, said Dearstyne, but he got off to a rocky start. Clinton was in the midst of fighting a battle when he was notified he had been elected governor and had to be sworn in. “I can’t,” he said.

“He was sworn in during a lull in the battle,” said Dearstyne. “I’ve got to go back and fight,” Clinton said afterward.

Dearstyne continued his narrative, in the present tense “As the British troops run in the front door, he runs out the back door. He runs down to the Hudson but has nowhere to go.” The only boat is full to capacity and, if Clinton boards, he’s told it will sink. “I’m the governor,” he says and one of the men on board jumps out.

“He said later he made his first executive decision when he urged the man back into the boat and then got in, too,” said Dearstyne. “The boat did not sink.”

Dearstyne concludes, “That’s the way New York begins. It’s hit or miss. Five minutes later, and the British would have had him.”

Asked what it means to be a New Yorker, Dearstyne says, “As a minimum, I live in the borders of New York. It ought to mean something more profound.”

He spoke of how, through its history, New York has been a leader in social justice; in economic reforms, “trying to be decent to people”; in education; in business; and in agriculture. “Being a leader has meant others have followed,” said Dearstyne. “New York has been an inspiration, a model,” he says, adding a bit wistfully, “Maybe not so much nowadays. New York was the biggest state in the country and the most influential.”


Starting in 1777, when New York became a state, and ending on Sept. 11, 2001, Bruce W. Dearstyne highlights important moments in New York’s history in his new book. The 384-page book is available, either in print or electronic form, for $24.95 at the website for State University of New York Press. Dearstyne will read from and sign his book on June 6, from 2 to 4 p.m., at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza on Route 20 in Guilderland; on June 7, at 2 p.m., at the Albany Institute of History and Art at 125 Washington Ave. in Albany; and on June 14, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at the Open Door Bookstore at 127 Jay Street in Schenectady.


The book

Dearstyne calls “The Spirit of New York” “a scholarly book for a popular audience.”

“There are so many pending issues we’ve wrestled with before,” he said. “You can read it to find out what’s most interesting, explore further, and reflect on New York.”

He also said, “In the back of my mind, I always thought I’d write a history of the state. Then I thought it would be more interesting if I picked out some exciting and revealing events, turning points with interesting people behind them.”

He lets the interesting people “talk for themselves,” he said.

“I tried to make this exciting,” he said of writing his book. “A lot of people are turned off by one fact after another, one date after another. History has to be engaging.” Dearstyne said he focused on the “eureka moments.”

Dearstyne avoided some of the topics that have been heavily written about, like the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, or the Civil War draft riots of 1863, or the crash of the New York Stock Market in 1929.

His book starts with the 1777 state constitution and ends with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “It’s not just about the event itself,” he said of the chapter on 9/11, but it is true of each of his chapters. “It’s about what led up to it and what transpired after it.”

“The fire department of New York City transformed itself after 9/11; it realized the future would be different — the threats the country would face would be different: random gosh-awful terrorists’ attacks,” he said.

His editor at State University of New York Press, Amanda Lanne-Camilli, advised him he had too much material so he winnowed the chapters to the current 15. Among the chapters taken out was one centered on a 1904 decision by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, that was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in Lochner v. New York.

Joseph Lochner, who owned a Utica bakery, was charged with violating an 1895 state law that limited hours worked by those in bakeries to no more than 60 per week. The 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision was delivered by Justice Rufus Wheeler Peckham. Peckham’s namesake father was born in Rensselaerville and both Peckhams served on the Court of Appeals.

“The guy who wrote the majority opinion died in Altamont,” said Dearstyne of the Supreme Court justice.

“The Court of Appeals was the second most important court in the nation, on the leading edge of so many things,” said Dearstyne.

The missing chapter also included Alton B. Parker, “a very modest fellow,” said Dearstyne, who served as chief judge for New York, resigning in 1904 to run for president. He bested publisher William Randolph Hearst for the Democratic nomination and then lost in a landslide to incumbent Republican Theodore Roosevelt.


Elizabeth Cady Stanton, seated at left, collaborated with Susan B. Anthony, at right, on reform issues for half of a century. Stanton is the character from his history book that Bruce W. Dearstyne would most like to meet. “She was immensely resilient and persistent,” he said. — Photo from the Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division


Dearstyne’s favorite character in the book is Elizabeth Cady Stanton. “If I could meet one of these people, it would be Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” he said. “She was immensely resilient and persistent. She kept at it for a half-century. She never gave up. She was feisty...Sometimes, she was confrontational and quarrelsome when she didn’t have to be. She wrote and she lectured; she was very spirited.”

He also said, “Her causes are not just about voting rights but about rights generally...She was for wage equity, too, which is currently playing out.”

Dearstyne said his book describes many historic issues that are parallel to issues today. He gave an example of dealing with immigration and diversity. “In 1907,” said Dearstyne, “one million people came through Ellis Island. A lot stayed in New York City.”

Another example he gave was pollution control. “The president just came out with federal water regulations. That’s been debated in New York since the 1890s.”

He concluded, “You won’t see an exact historic replica but you’ll see how people grappled with these issues in the past...It’s a complex state with a lot of ragged edges and loose ends.”

His book abounds with people or parties on different sides of an issue working out compromises. “People now dig in and cite ‘principle’ as justification for obstruction. That’s not how this country and state got built. I get discouraged when I read what’s going on in Washington. They can’t get together on immigration, national debt.”

The author

Dearstyne, who is 70, was born and grew up on the Berne farm that has been in his family since 1899. “Our grandchildren are the sixth generation,” said Dearstyne who lives now in Guilderland.

“It was hard but wholesome,” he said of farm life. The first in his family to go to college, he revered his teachers at Berne-Knox-Westerlo. “They were determined that kids would learn,” he said. “They would push you to excel.”

Dearstyne also said, “It was like going to school surrounded by history.” On one side of the school on Helderberg Trail is the Lutheran church where, on July 4, 1839, the “Declaration of Independence” was issued by tenant farmers to defy their patroon landlord, demanding lower rent and the right to purchase the hilly farms they were leasing. “Just west of that was where one of the Balls was ejected for not paying rent,” he said.

Dearstyne devotes a chapter of his book to the tenant farmers’ rebellion. “It goes on and on; people get worn down,” he said of the decades-long protests. In his book, he writes, “The Farmers’ Rebellion ended mostly in quiet, begrudging compromise where farmers bought the farms they occupied from landlords, rather than in a victory that abolished landlords’ rights.”

Currently, New York State history is neglected in schools; seventh grade history used to be devoted to New York, said Dearstyne. Now its combined with and upstaged by United States history in the eighth grade, he said.

“An awful lot of New York history is United States history,” said Dearstyne.

“Fiction trumps history,” writes Bruce W. Dearstyne in his chapter on James Fenimore Cooper’s popular novel, “The Last of the Mohicans,” published in 1826. The illustration is by Frank T. Merrill from the 1896 edition. “Cooper, even with all his inaccuracies, exaggerations, interpretations, and anachronistic views on race, war, and civilization, is an extraordinarily skillful writer,” Dearstyne writes. “He has presented an engaging and enduring tale of danger and adventure.”


Dearstyne graduated from BKW in 1962 and went on to study history at Hartwick College in Oneonta. He then got a fellowship to study at Syracuse University and wrote his doctoral dissertation, later published as a book, on railroad regulations in New York State in the Progressive Era.

“The regulations of railroads were designed to help the state, the users — the passengers and shippers — and the railroads themselves,” said Dearstyne.

“Nothing is simple in New York State,” said Dearstyne, who taught both state and United States history at Potsdam for a year at the start of his career. “I would stand up and rehearse lectures,” he said, calling teaching “a real learning experience.”

He later taught in Maryland, at the University at Albany, and at Russell Sage College. But the bulk of his career was as a program director at the New York State Archives.

In 1973, he joined staff at the Office of State History, which had been established by the State Education Department in the 1960s; he worked with local governments and their records. “I went around the state, looking a records and advising clerks and historians,” he said.

New York, he pointed out, is the only state that mandates each municipality have a historian. “That was signed into law in 1919 by Al Smith, a history-minded governor,” said Dearstyne. “The local historians do marvelous, marvelous work,” he said. “They often have the best feel for what really happened in that community. This is where history was really taking place.” He added, “They don’t get the support and recognition they might.”

In 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial, the state disbanded the Office of State History, and Dearstyne’s unit was sent to the State Archives, he said, where he spent 20 years. There he worked statewide with towns, villages, cities, libraries, and historical societies, advising and developing behind-the-scenes programs.

“New York was the last major state in the country to establish a state archive,” Dearstyne said. The statute was adopted in 1971, he said, and the first state archivist was hired in 1975. “He had no staff until we went there,” Dearstyne said of the four people, including himself, who moved over from the Office of State History.

Dearstyne, who worked at the State Archives from 1976 until 1997 is proudest of “building the archives to be the biggest state archives in the nation and I would say the best.”

When he left, the department had about 120 people on staff although, since the recession and budget cuts, that number has been reduced, he said.

The State Archives are housed in the Cultural Education Center on Madison Avenue in Albany. They share the center with the State Museum and the State Library. “They all work together,” said Dearstyne.

“It sounds immodest,” he said, “but we worked like the dickens.” He did the analysis and drafting of a report titled, “Toward a Useable Past.”

“The past, historical records, are useful for understanding precedents, parallels, and origins,” said Dearstyne. “I call it putting history to work.”

The report served as a template for the records that the State Archives would collect. “In the process,” said Dearstyne, “we talked to a lot of people, and built up interest and support. We had a good amount of momentum.”

In the late 1970s, he recalled, Governor Mario Cuomo appointed a State Historical Records Advisory Board to get federal grants. Dearstyne called Mario Cuomo, like Al Smith, “history-minded.”

“He endorsed the report and said, ‘We need to do better with our history,’” recalled Dearstyne.

“We made allies...We were modest; we tried to give credit to others who were helpful to us,” said Dearstyne, concluding, “The future of New York State is anchored in its glorious past.”

Dearstyne called the archives “historically valuable records” because they were produced by people and institutions doing their daily work “fresh from the action.” “It’s firsthand, direct information,” said Dearstyne. “It’s not filtered, interpreted, refracted.”

The records have to be collected systematically and in a balanced way, he said, noting this is even harder to do in an electronic era. Emails are often not saved or are hard to access, and, said Dearstyne, “There’s a lot more of it.”

Many New Yorkers use the archives for genealogical research, he said, as they trace their family histories. “The most useful use is people trying to recover what happened,” Dearstyne said. “You need solid primary sources.” He wishes the State Archives were used more by everyday people who may not know they exist or may feel intimidated, when they shouldn’t.

In answer to the statement, “I can’t use the state archives,” Dearstyne offers an emphatic, “Yes, you can.”

Jackie Robinson “was a model of courage, determination, resilience, and athletic skills,” writes Bruce W. Dearstyne in his chapter of New York history called, “April 15, 1947: Breaking the Color Line.” — Photo from the National Baseball Hall of Fame


Dearstyne has letters his parents wrote to each other before they were married, which he treasures. But, he notes, “Government records are different because they’re official. He used, as an example, early minutes of Guilderland town meetings, largely concerned with matters like road-building and fence-mending.

“As the town grows, it’s reflected in those minutes. It’s not as personal as letters,” said Dearstyne, “but, to my mind, it’s immensely exciting.”

He likes being faced with the challenge, “How do I make sense of it all?”

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