BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY–Hey, it’s time once again to send Mom that special e-card. From the vaults, the story of the men who voted against the first Mother’s Day:

In the annals of easy votes, one might expect to find a prominent place for the congressional resolution that established Mother’s Day. Yet the first Mother’s Day was hooted down in the U.S. Senate. They made senators of sterner stuff in those days, I tell you.

Mother’s Day was the brainchild of Anna Jarvis, a Philadelphia woman stricken with grief over the death of her saintly mother in May 1905. Two years later, Miss Jarvis organized memorial services for her mother in Philadelphia and her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia. Then, in one of those mad boundless leaps taken only by the most irrepressible holiday entrepreneurs, Anna Jarvis went national. She decided that henceforth, on the anniversary of her mother’s death, all Americans ought to honor the women who gave them birth.

In May 1908, freshman Senator Elmer Burkett (R-NE) put Miss Jarvis’s proposal before his colleagues. It was not a Hallmark moment.

Senator Burkett explained that Mother’s Day legislation was a special request of the Young Men’s Christian Association. The YMCA, he asserted, was doing the Lord’s work in the “gathering together of the boys for social intercourse”—a theme later elaborated upon by the Village People.

Mother’s Day, said Senator Burkett, would remind “boys from the country who are in the cities and among strangers” to think of “the old homes they left behind and the mothers who gave them birth.”

Burkett’s mawkish if well-meant discourse was met by a hail of mockery. The neophyte legislator was astonished by the ridicule heaped upon his innocent proposal. “I did not expect that a single objection would be offered,” he averred; he was offended to hear “light made of it” by the graybeards.

Senator John Kean (R-NJ) immediately moved to amend Burkett’s measure by striking everything after “Resolved” and substituting the Fifth Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother.”

Senator Henry Moore Teller (D-CO) scorned the resolution as “puerile,” “absolutely absurd,” and “trifling.” He announced, “Every day with me is a mother’s day.”

Senator Jacob Gallinger (R-NH) judged the very idea of Mother’s Day to be an insult, as though his memory of his late mother “could only be kept green by some outward demonstration on Sunday, May 10.”

“There are some thoughts that are so great and so sacred that they are belittled by movements of this character,” lectured Senator Charles Fulton (R-OR), who went on to suggest the consecration of “Mother-in-Law Day.”

Besides—and this objection may strike modern ears as bizarre—whether or not young men honored their mothers was none of the federal government’s damned business.

“It is not a proper subject for legislation,” declared Senator Weldon Heyburn (R-ID). “[T]he sentiment that exists between the parent and the child” was “too sacred to be made the subject of bandying words” and symbolic resolutions.

By a margin of 33-14, the Senate contemptuously returned this first Mother’s Day resolution to committee. But a few constitutionalist pettifoggers were not going to stop Anna Jarvis. She enlisted the potent support of the World’s Sunday School Association. By 1914, members of Congress were falling all over each other in praise of a federally sanctioned day of maternal homage. Mother’s Day, celebrated on the second Sunday of May, was here to stay.

(The logical companion to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, took decades to catch on, despite assiduous propagandizing by the necktie industry.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to the florist. Anna Jarvis, the mother of Mother’s Day, became its harshest critic.

Jarvis denounced the greeting card and gift and candy manufacturers who battened on her day. In vain, she urged sons and daughters to buy buttons instead of flowers for mom; she called greeting cards “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.” The embittered Jarvis concluded that “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites” had corrupted “with their greed one of the finest, noblest, truest Movements and celebrations known.”

The spinster Jarvis, who never had children, died alone in a Pennsylvania nursing home. She had come to agree with those early Senate critics who derided the establishment of a national Mother’s Day. Clergymen sympathetic to Jarvis told their flocks to shun the commercial interests and honor their mothers with a hand-picked dandelion and either a hug or a hand-written letter. Sons and daughters are still free to take their advice.

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Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman was born on November 15 (also the birthday of Bobby Dandridge) in the otherwise forgettable year of 1959. He was an all-star Little League shortstop for the Lions Club Cubs but soon thereafter his talents eroded. After an idyllic childhood in his ancestral home of Batavia, New York, birthplace of Anti-Masonry, he was graduated from Batavia High School in 1977. He earned, more or less, a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1981 and went therefrom to the staff of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the only dairy farmer in the U.S. Senate. Two and a half years later he left Moynihan’s staff a bohemian Main Street anarchist who loved the Beats, the New England transcendentalists, early 20th century local colorists (Sarah Orne Jewett his Maine gal), cowpunk music, and the crazy old America. Neil Diamond and Karen Carpenter, too, but don’t tell anyone. He bummed around out west for a while, sleeping in bus stations and writing derivative poetry in Salt Lake City flophouses (nah, he’s not a Mormon, just a BYU fan) before an ill-starred year in graduate school at the UR. He took a seminar with Christopher Lasch and thought on it. In the spring of 1985 he flew west to become an assistant editor with Reason magazine. He had great fun in Santa Barbara with that crew of congenial editors drinking far into the night at Eddie Van Cleeve’s Sportsman’s Lounge, but in ’86 he flew east to become the magazine’s Washington editor. Always homesick, Kauffman persuaded his lovely and talented wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, to move back to Batavia in 1988 in what he called a “one-year experiment”—the year to be measured, apparently, in Old Testament terms. They’re still there—or, more accurately, five miles north in Elba (apt name for an exile!), where Lucine is Town Supervisor. She may well be the highest-ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, at least until the voters of California send Cher to the U.S. Senate. Take that, Turks! Lucine and Bill have a daughter, Gretel, 17, who writes and acts and plays piano and French horn. Their lab mutt, Victoria, whose tail graces the accompanying photo, is now departed, to their sorrow, but a cat, Duffy, darts in and out of the house when the mood strikes. Bill is the author of nine books: Every Man a King (Soho Press/1989), a novel, which was recently rescued from the remainder bin by a New York Sun article proclaiming it the best political satire of the last century (the Sun thereupon set); Country Towns of New York (McGraw-Hill/1994), a travel book about God’s country; America First! Its History, Culture and Politics (Prometheus/1995), a cultural history of isolationism which Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic called the best introduction to the American anti-imperialist tradition; With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America (Praeger/1998), his worst-seller, a sympathetic account of critics of highways, school consolidation, a standing army, and the Siren Progress; Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Henry Holt/2003; Picador ppb. 2004), a memoirish book about his hometown which won the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books; Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (ISI/2006), which the American Library Association named one of the best books of 2006 and which won the Andrew Eiseman Writers Award; Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism (Henry Holt/ Metropolitan/2008), which Barnes & Noble named one of the best books of 2008; Forgotten Founder: Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI/2008), a biography of a brilliant dipsomaniacal Anti-Federalist who warned us this was gonna happen; and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green/2010), a cheerful account of dissolution. Bill is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for The American Conservative. He has written for numerous publications, including The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Nation, Chronicles, the Independent and The Spectator of London, Counterpunch, Orion, University Bookman, and Utne Reader. He is vice president of the Genesee County Baseball Club, which owns the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn Baseball League. Come summertime, he can be found in the 3rd base bleachers at Dwyer Stadium. He is also active in the officerless (of course) John Gardner Society. Bill is more handsome than the photo on this site would suggest. See books written by Bill Kauffman.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you! 🙂 “Do-Gooders” often do more harm than good.

    Hmm…What’s that other saying about H*ll, roads and good intentions?

    I can understand the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Why our government’s representatives think that they need to endorse a pastiche of commemorative days and months is beyond me! Since the economy is in bad shape; maybe our Congressmen(women) and Senators should become part-time employees…and take the corresponding pay cut!

  2. Might I suggest a National Holiday commemorating:
    Post…… Washington D.C., while Congress is in Session and the President hard at work at his desk to China as collateral for their misc. and sundry investments in us ”

    to be followed by another holiday of celebration:

    Default on said posting, thus having to render up the Federal District to said Chinese Note Holders

    No Backsies

    Imagine that, a member of Congress asserting that something is “none of their business”

    Three cheers to Ma though. If men were forced to conceive and give birth, the species would have cashed out with the first generation.

  3. Okay…. Only Bill Kauffman would call down rain on Mothers’ Day….. He does remind us, though, of just how different the American Republic was a century ago, before we succumbed to Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and cheap sentimentality as a substitute for familial autonomy and self reliance.

  4. Ms. Jarvis’s original sentiments were noble. I can understand her disgust. […] she called greeting cards “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write’. […] That about says is all.

    I remember when women were given carnation cosages for Mother’s Day as they came into church. Two colors were available for one if their own mother was alive and another if she was deceased. The mens group served (and cleaned up after) a luncheon buffet for those who wished to attend. I’m sure the wives were the ones who prepared the cold-cut platters and other goodies that were served…especially the home-made pies…yummy! Those old Methodist women were great cooks! 🙂

    I encouraged my children to make cards for their grandmothers. We always went out to dinner the weekend before or after Mother’s Day; because Mum didn’t want to miss the luncheon at church. Also, the service, crowding and food is always a disappointment on Mother’s Day (The busiest eating-out day of the year).

    My grown children think that Mother’s Day is a “stupid, contrived holiday.” However, I encourage my grandchildren to make cards and give their mother and their stepmother the cards and a carnation. I let their own mothers worry about dinner and the arrangements between the families. I am happy to spend the day with my spinster daughter and DH (darling hubsend)

    Yes gentlemen, I am a sentimental old lady!….and I love it! 😉 🙂

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