Posts Tagged ‘local history’

Bloody Bloody Louis McLane

Louis McLane, Delaware lawyer, politician, and member of Andrew Jackson's Cabinet

In which I bring together two of my favorite topics, local history and local theater

I saw a fun production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson this past weekend at Wilmington’s City Theater Company. I’d recommend catching it if you can take a break from finals. It has everything: rock and roll, men in tight pants, dancing, fake blood, obscenities, and the entertaining but historically and politically incorrect story of Andrew Jackson.

There’s only one thing missing from this fine production and that is Delaware’s own member of Jackson’s cabinet, Louis McLane! He was left out of the play, probably “in the interest of narrative economy” as the play says. Also probably because he really wasn’t very funny.

Louis McLane was born in 1784 in Delaware. His father, Allen McLane, was a Revolutionary War hero and Collector of the Customs for the District of Delaware, which basically means he was chief tax collector at the port of Wilmington. Wilmington was a major port at the time so he made good money. At 15 Louis became a Navy midshipman and went to sea, but after one voyage he resigned, possibly because he was terribly seasick.

After he left the Navy, Louis went to school at the Newark Academy and then read law with James A. Bayard. While studying to be a lawyer he fought a duel with a fellow law clerk and was shot in the groin. He later had 13 children so it couldn’t have been too serious. He volunteered for an Artillery Company during the War of 1812 but never saw any action.

Louis McLane lived in this house at 606 Market St in Wilmington. It has been remodeled so many times there is probably little left of the original house.

McLane started a law practice and went into politics. He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1817, where he served for 10 years and became Chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee. He left the House when he was elected to the Senate in 1827.

McLane belonged to the Federalist Party, one of the original political parties which had pretty much died out in the rest of the country but was still popular in Delaware, which has always been a bit slow to change. McLane became a friend of Martin Van Buren and admirer of Andrew Jackson and led his wing of the Delaware Federalists into Jackson’s party. In return for his support McLane hoped for a cabinet position or to be named to the Supreme Court. He was disappointed however to be made Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain. This may sound like a great position but it didn’t pay all that well and involved a lot of expense as he had to bring his whole family over to Britain in a boat and they still didn’t have steamships so it wasn’t a fun crossing. Then you had to live in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities and entertain lavishly, so it wasn’t a profitable job.

Luckily for McLane, Andrew Jackson got mad at his entire cabinet because their wives were rude to somebody and decided to replace them. McLane was made Secretary of the Treasury which would have been great, except for one big problem. The Bank of the United States. I have never understood the whole Bank of the United States thing, but the important point is that Andrew Jackson was against the Bank of the United States and McLane was for it. McLane refused to withdraw the federal treasury money from the Bank so Jackson replaced him and made him Secretary of State instead. McLane didn’t have much better luck as Secretary of State. He was trying to resolve the French Spoliation claims (which involved the French owing us money and not paying it back) when Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s Vice President and McLane’s old friend, went behind his back and solved the problem himself. McLane was so mad he resigned from the Cabinet and never spoke to Van Buren again.

McLane retired from politics, left Delaware and moved to Baltimore where he became president of the Morris Canal & Banking Company and later the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He made a further brief foray into national politics when he was named Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain again by James K. Polk. But he never got to be a Supreme Court Justice. Louis McLane died in Baltimore in 1857. From what I’ve read about McLane it’s hard to tell whether he would have been relieved to not be portrayed as a prancing aristocrat in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or angry that he was left out. One way or the other he probably would have challenged somebody to a duel.

Photo credits:  Wikimedia Commons and

A much less silly and more scholarly version of Louis McLane’s life can be found in: John A. Munroe. Louis McLane: Federalist and Jacksonian. Rutgers University Press, 1973.


Delaware’s silent sentinels, Delaware women in the fight for women’s suffrage

March 23rd, 2012 No comments

Delaware's Mabel Vernon marches to the White House

In a previous post, I covered the role of Delaware women in the struggle to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Women from Delaware also played an important part in the long and difficult struggle to get the amendment proposed and passed by Congress. The National Woman’s Party, founded in 1916, was a women’s rights group that used more militant tactics to get the attention of politicians and the public.

One of the leaders of the NWP was Delawarean Mabel Vernon. Born in Wilmington in 1883, her father was a newspaper editor. She attended Swarthmore College, where she met Alice Paul, who would become the leader of the NWP. After college Vernon worked as a teacher until Paul asked her to work as an organizer for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and NWP. She organized local protests and nationwide tours and became an accomplished speaker. In 1916 she led a group of activists who unfurled a banner and heckled President Wilson during a speech to Congress.

A policewoman (in white) arrests Delawarean Annie Arniel (center left) for picketing the White House

In 1917, the NWP decided to step up pressure on President Wilson and organized pickets in front of the White House. Calling themselves “silent sentinels” the women picketed the White House, in Lafayette Park and at other government buildings. In June 1917 the police began arresting picketers. Initially they were usually released without charge, but when the protests continued the penalties became more serious. Alice Paul and other women were sentenced to up to 6 months in Occoquan Workhouse. Some prisoners held hunger strikes and were force-fed by prison authorities. Released prisoners were sent on nationwide tours by the NWP and spoke to crowds wearing their prison uniforms.

Catherine Boyle, of New Castle, Delaware, holds a suffrage flag

A number of Delaware women were among the protesters. Seven served jail time: Mabel Vernon, Florence Bayard Hilles, Annie J. Magee, Naomi Barrett, Annie Arniel, Catherine Boyle, and Mary Brown. Annie Arniel of Wilmington, who had worked in a munitions factory, spent the most time in jail. She was arrested 8 times and spent a total of 103 days in jail. After one of her arrests Arniel told the Sunday Star, a Wilmington paper, “We were good enough to work in the steel plant and help load shells for the battle-fields of France, but we are still not good enough to vote, it seems. Can anyone see justice in this?”

The National Woman’s Party continued the protests until 1919 when Congress passed the 19th Amendment.

Photo credits: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party. Library of Congress and Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

For more information see:

Annie L. Arniel, the Iron-Jawed Suffragette. Webpage by Ken Menard.

Ford, Linda G. Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, 1912-1920. University Press of America, 1991.

Mabel Vernon: Speaker for  Suffrage and Petitioner for Peace. Interview by Amelia R. Fry. Bancroft Library. Suffragists Oral History Project.

Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. Boni and Liveright, 1920.

The Suffrage Movement in Delaware. Historical Society of Delaware

Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party. Library of Congress.


The 19th Amendment in Delaware

March 19th, 2012 No comments

Delaware suffragist Florence Bayard Hilles speaks to a crowd

After years of struggle by women’s movement advocates to gain the vote for women, the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1919. However, the amendment would not become part of the Constitution until it had been ratified by 36 states. Ten months later 35 states had ratified the amendment and only one more state was needed. The leaders of the women’s suffrage movement looked to the Delaware General Assembly to cast the decisive vote at a special session in March 1920.

The suffrage and anti-suffrage forces descended on Dover to encourage the General Assembly to vote their way, marching through town wearing distinctive flowers, yellow for the suffragists and red for the anti-suffragists. Both sides were led by charismatic women.

The leaders of the suffrage forces were Florence Bayard Hilles of the National Woman’s Party and Mabel Lloyd Ridgely of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association. Florence Bayard Hilles was the daughter of the American ambassador to Great Britain and was descended from Delaware’s politically prominent Bayard family. Mabel Lloyd Ridgely was the leader of the Kent County suffragists and also came from a prominent Delaware family.

Mary Wilson Thompson, leader of the Delaware anti-suffragists

The anti-suffrage leaders were two equally prominent Delaware women. Mary Wilson Thompson was active in many civic causes and was an expert lobbyist. She was eventually known in Delaware for, among other things, founding the Delaware Mosquito Control Corp which worked to reduce mosquitoes in Sussex County. Emily Bissell was a social reformer who founded what is today West End Neighborhood House  and is best known for introducing Christmas Seals to America.

Both sides lobbied and protested in Dover. The suffragists brought Eamon de Valera, president of the Irish Free State to Delaware to convince Irish-American representatives and at one point resorted to kidnapping the chairman of a House committee so that he couldn’t present the amendment for a vote the suffragists were sure to lose.

On May 5th the Delaware Senate ratified the amendment. Only the House remained to be convinced. After months of lobbying and rallying by both sides the Delaware House on June 3rd voted to adjourn without passing the amendment. The anti-suffragists had won.

But their victory was short-lived. Delaware had lost its chance to make history and the lobbying and marching passed to the next state, Tennessee, which ratified the amendment by one vote. The Nineteenth Amendment and votes for women became part of the Constitution.

Photo sources:

Florence Bayard Hilles. Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party. Library of Congress.

Mary Wilson Thompson. Historical Society of Delaware.

For more information see:

de Vou, Mary R., “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Delaware,” in H. Clay Reed, ed., Delaware: A History of the First State (New York: 1947), 1:349-70

Delaware,” in Ida Husted Harper, ed., The History of Woman Suffrage (National American Woman Suffrage Association: 1922) 6: 86-103

Higgins, Anthony, ed., “Mary Wilson Thompson Memoir,” Delaware History 18 (1978-79): 43-62, 126-152, 194-218, 238-266.

Hoffecker, Carol E., “Delaware’s Woman Suffrage Campaign,” Delaware History 20 (1982-83): 149-167.

The Suffrage Movement in Delaware. Historical Society of Delaware.

Local legal historic sites – Midtown Parking Center and Eagle Coffee Shoppe

February 8th, 2012 No comments
Midtown Parking Center

Midtown Parking Center

This ordinary mid-century parking garage once played an important part in the struggle to end segregation in Delaware. In 1958, William H. Burton, an African American and member of the Wilmington City Council, entered the Eagle Coffee Shoppe, a restaurant on the ground floor of the parking garage and was refused service. The restaurant, like most restaurants and theaters in Wilmington at that time would not serve African Americans.  The parking garage was built and maintained by the Wilmington Parking Authority, which had leased space to shops and a restaurant in order to defray the cost of the garage. Burton, represented by Louis L. Redding, filed suit in the Delaware Court of Chancery against the restaurant and Parking Authority. The case was eventually appealed to the United States Supreme Court which found in Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority 365 US 715 (1961) that because the restaurant was in a government owned building, refusing service to Burton on the basis of his race violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Eagle Restaurant menu

Eagle Restaurant menu from 1956. The restaurant moved to the Parking Authority garage in 1958.

In a 1998 interview, attorney Frank H. Hollis remembered how the case started. Seven African-American Chrysler workers had been arrested and charged with trespassing for trying to eat in the Eagle Coffee Shoppe. Hollis represented the seven. After conferring with Louis Redding and the NAACP, councilman Burton was asked to be a test case. When Burton was also denied service, Redding filed the suit against the Wilmington Parking Authority and the restaurant.

Burton’s attorney Louis L. Redding, was the first African American attorney in Delaware. He had a long legal career in Delaware and argued many important civil rights cases. Besides Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority he was also the attorney for the plaintiffs in Gebhart v. Belton which eventually was heard as part of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

The parking garage is now closed, though it still stands at the corner of 9th and Shipley. The Eagle Coffee Shoppe has been gone for many years and is currently the location of the Ninth Street Book Shop.


Frank H. Hollis. My Memories of Law Practice in Wilmington, Delaware. Del. Law., SUMMER 1998, at 22

Carolyn D. Mack. The Other Side of Equity: The Court of Chancery and Civil Rights. 5 Del. Law. FALL 1986 at 20 (1986)

Harvey Bernard Rubenstein. Delaware Controversies That Have Shaped the Constitution. 6 Del. Law. 122 (1987-1988)

Robert E. Whiteside. Parking Facilities Developed in Merchant-City Programs. 13 Traffic Quarterly 294 (1959)

and thanks to Jack Buckley, Ninth Street Book Shop