New York state history is rich with wonderful tales of risk takers, innovators and people who understood that the common good was every bit as important as their personal circumstances. Bruce Dearstyne is trying to make sure people don’t forget that.
In his new book, “The Spirit of New York,” which came out electronically in March and will be published by SUNY Press on June 1, Dearstyne tells 15 New York stories dating from the state’s first constitutional convention in 1777 to the tragedy of 9/11 in 2001.
There are stories that will sound familiar to most New Yorkers, as well as those not so familiar, some you may have missed in your grade-school history class.
In fact, getting New York schools to remember their history is one of the goals Dearstyne has set for himself, and he hopes his book will help ignite a new appreciation of the state’s wonderful past.
A native of Berne in western Albany County, Dearstyne spent nearly 25 years at the State Archives in Albany, and is still working as an adjunct professor in information studies at the University of Maryland. He got his four-year degree in history at Hartwick College, and went on to get his master’s and doctorate in history from Syracuse University.
The subtitle of his book is “Defining Events in the Empire State’s History.”
An earlier book, “Railroads and Railroad Regulations in New York State, 1900-1913,” was published in 1986, and he is also about to produce another work, “Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age.”
Dearstyne has two upcoming book signings: June 6 at 3 p.m. at The Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza, and June 7 at 2 p.m. at the Albany Institute of History & Art. He lives in Guilderland with his wife, Susan. They have two daughters and four grandchildren, also all Guilderland residents.
Q: Why did you write “The Spirit of New York?”
A: I’ve been interested in New York history my whole life, and I did my dissertation on railroads and railroad regulations in the state. I was trying to find a way to tell the reader what is different and distinct about New York from the rest of the country. I thought I could do that through stories that would be both revealing and indicative of the spirit of the state, and also interesting.
There are so many interesting events and characters in New York’s history. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is a good example. She was an unstoppable reformer, and the way I think of her is the way I think of New York; a lot of energy, drive and push.
Q: What did you have to leave out?
A: Well, I could have gone back into Colonial New York, but I needed to come up with something that would fit into one book. I also didn’t have a lot on the American Revolution; there’s a lot written on that already, along with the Erie Canal. Those events have been covered quite a bit. I wanted to write about things that were not so well-known.
Q: Why did you include the “anti-rent wars” that began in 1839?
A: It’s not a well-known story, and I have another reason. The Lutheran Church in Berne on page 43 of my book happens to be where I grew up in Berne. That’s sort of where the whole thing began, and I think some modern scholarship of the past 15 to 20 years has cast a different light on this story, making it more complex, more nuanced, with some good and bad on both sides.
Sometimes the sheriffs were portrayed as bullies, and I portray them as people just doing their jobs. But it’s also a great story of farmers working together, guys who tried and tried to get something done through politics and when not too much happened, they fell back on paramilitary operations.
It’s also the story of Smith Boughton, a doctor who was a very interesting guy, who came out of nowhere to be one of the leaders of the rebellion. I quote one of his letters from a jail in Hudson, where he’s urging his supporters on the outside to remain non-violent. He’s very eloquent about being am agent for change, and how best to affect that change.
Q: Why do four chapters of your book deal with the time period between 1899-1911?
A: My book “Railroads and Railroad Regulations” dealt with that time period, and I’ve always thought of that period as the watershed of modern New York. An awful lot got done in that period. We had the great Progressive governor, Charles Evans Hughes, we had the formulation of the Public Service Commission. There were a lot of essential policies that were put in place during that time, and in my mind it’s a time period that people should know more about. Some of the issues from the Progressive Era are ones we’re still dealing with today.
Q: Who is your target audience?
A: I think of my book as a scholarly book for a popular audience, so it’s for everyone. New York history is not as well known as it should be, not even here in New York, where it is not taught as much as it should be in the schools.
Every day there are issues that come up in Albany or someplace else in the state, whereby we can look at some historic precedent to get some insight. All we have to do is look back at our own history. So I’m happy to promote this book and eager to talk about it.
I’ve always considered myself and advocate for New York history. We have some wonderful people at the state museum and archives and in other places working hard, but we need to do even more.