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Ending the Age of Extermination: George McLean, Birdman of the Senate

Connecticut reformer saves beautiful creatures from extinction

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On Sept. 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m., the last passenger pigeon on Earth, Martha (named after Martha Washington), died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Once North America’s most abundant bird, numbering 3 billion to 5 billion, this sleek bird built for speed was hunted into extinction.  Martha was the poster child of the Age of Extermination, when birds were mercilessly killed for food, fashion and sport.

Other common birds that faced extinction in the early 1900s include the wood duck, the snowy egret, the whooping crane, the trumpeter swan and the doomed Carolina parakeet, America’s only endemic parrot. Reflecting upon the extinction of the passenger pigeon, naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote in 1947, “This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.”

Carrier pigeons by John Jacob Audubon, before the Age of Extermination

The Age of Extermination

Early European settlers of North America viewed birds and other natural resources as limitless. However, by around 1900, this illusion of abundance was replaced by the realities of scarcity and extinction. What had gone wrong? Following the Civil War, America experienced a remarkable surge in population, from 31 million people in 1860 to 72 million by 1900. There were simply more mouths to feed, and opportunistic bird hunters eagerly met the need. Adding to this rising demand: the insatiable desire for bird plumage to adorn women’s hats.

But bird mortality rates were supercharged by advances in gun technology, such as the advent of the automatic shotgun around 1890. The slaughter of birds went from hundreds of thousands each year to millions, then tens of millions and higher. There was no easy solution to stop or slow the killing. States and localities had the freedom to devise and enforce their own hunting regulations.

Enter George P. McLean: Prepared to Aid Birds

This perilous situation for birds forms the backdrop for the story of U.S. Sen. George P. McLean, nicknamed the Birdman of the U.S. Senate. McLean helped establish lasting legal protections for birds by overseeing passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918. The landmark environmental protection legislation is still in effect today.  McLean’s victory for birds happened in the context of  distinguished 45-year career, marked by many reforms during a time of widespread corruption and political instability.

George P. McLean helped end the Age of Extermination for birds

For many people today, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a just footnote in conservation history, or a complex set of laws and regulations. But the MBTA relates to McLean’s rich and varied life experiences and the intersection of culture and politics.

McLean, a man of vision, courage, political skill and perseverance, was uniquely positioned and prepared to lead passage of this landmark bill. His victory was not cheaply won—a reminder that change is never easy. McLean led reforms as a young state legislator and governor of Connecticut, which prepared him for the hard struggle to pass the MBTA. In these roles, McLean learned through adversity how to lead build coalitions, adapt to opponents’ objections and gaining public support.

McLean’s Rise from Obscurity

McLean rose from an obscure Connecticut farm boy to national prominence. He grew up on a subsistence farm in Simsbury, Conn., but came to know seven U.S. presidents. When he arrived at Hartford Public High School in 1872, he was bullied because of his clothes, fashioned from flax and wool by his mother. But, over time, McLean won the respect of many of his antagonists, who came to view him as the brainiest member of their class. His peers eventually named him the class orator and the school editor in recognition of his exceptional writing and speaking skills.

McLean had two dreams when he graduated from high school: first, become publisher of the largest newspaper in Connecticut; second, get elected president of the United States. His first job was as a reporter for the Hartford Post. There he met many influential politicians while covering them for the newspaper. They viewed McLean as a very able, ambitious, personable young man with a promising future in politics. So they mentored him. They encouraged McLean to study law and then run for the Connecticut House of Representatives. At 25 he won election to his first political office.

McLean Leads Political Reform

George P. McLean led political reform at many junctures of his 45-year career. In the Connecticut Legislature, while still in his twenties, McLean identified corruption in the pardon system. The Legislature decided which prisoners to pardon,  usually in a circuslike atmosphere. Bribery and favor trading sometimes swayed the decision.

McLean’s efforts resulted in the creation of the Connecticut Board of Pardons, an achievement that made him a political up-and-comer by 30. After he left the Legislature, McLean practiced law but stayed active in politics. In 1896, President Benjamin Harrison named him U.S. Attorney for Connecticut. In 1900, at 43, McLean reached the summit of his early career when he won election as governor of Connecticut. The future looked bright for the former farm boy. As governor of his home state, McLean’s dream of the U.S. presidency seemed within reach.

A Reform-Minded Governor

In his inaugural address, Governor McLean outlined an ambitious reform plan, including a tax on “moneyed corporations,” free textbooks for public-school students, women’s suffrage for municipal and local elections and several tax-reforms. McLean’s signature reform issue was the reapportionment of the Connecticut General Assembly, ending the so-called rotten boroughs system that heavily favored rural small towns over Connecticut’s fast-growing cities.

Dating back to colonial times, Connecticut’s “town system” granted up to two representatives per city and town, regardless of population. As a result, the Connecticut Legislature was controlled by the more numerous small towns, in effect disenfranchising Connecticut’s urban areas. Control of state legislatures was especially important as they elected U.S. senators until 1913. (The 17th amendment provided for the direct popular election of U.S. senators, ratified by the states in 1913.)

Senator McLean

Defeat, Exile and an Unlikely Comeback

McLean’s reform initiatives as governor were spectacularly unsuccessful. He faced bitter opposition, ironically from many of his previous supporters. Several of McLean’s earliest mentors became his harshest critics. The leaders of McLean’s own political party, the Republicans, also bitterly fought his reforms. McLean’s last year as governor was very contentious and filled with adversity. He vainly searched for compromises to get some semblance of his reform agenda passed, but in the end his reforms were defeated. He was also physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. McLean felt like he’d failed and lost his opportunity to shine on the national stage; his presidential ambitions were slipping away. All of this sent him into a paralyzing depression and, eventually, a serious breakdown of his mental health.

From 1902 to 1910, McLean was exiled into the political wilderness. His political adversaries viewed him as washed up. Ever the reformer, McLean led nascent efforts to reform Connecticut’s mental-health system. In 1908 he was named president of the nation’s first mental health professional organization,  the forerunner of today’s Mental Health America, which advocates for improved care for the mentally ill.

During those wilderness years, McLean, a bachelor, married Juliette Goodrich, a longtime companion from his hometown of Simsbury. The two loved to travel, usually spending the winter months in Georgia and Florida. McLean also resumed his law practice, took up golf, expanded his dairy herd and grew shade tobacco on his boyhood farm.

He tried a political comeback in 1905, running for the US Senate. Though he started out as the frontrunner, his political enemies joined forces to derail his candidacy. McLean’s trademark persistence eventually paid off. In 1911, after a two-year campaign, McLean finally won a seat in the U.S. Senate. He served in the world’s greatest deliberative body for three terms until 1929.

End to the Age of Extermination

Bird protection legislation of some sort would have passed if George P. McLean had never been born, but when and to what extent? McLean’s maiden speech in the Senate after his election in 1911 focused on migratory bird protection, showing urgency and vision. He exhibited extraordinary perseverance over the next seven years, fighting delay tactics and engaging in spirited debates with opponents on the Senate floor.

McLean and birding party in Louisiana

After America’s entry into the First World War in 1917, foes of bird protection argued with patriotic fervor that legislation about birds should be tabled indefinitely. But McLean had cultivated an important ally from the opposing political party: President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. Wilson eventually signed the MBTA into law on July 3, 1918,. He did it though the U.S. was fully participating in World War I and suffering through a global flu pandemic, bitter labor strikes and widespread social unrest.

McLean’s perseverance and commitment to bird protection legislation came at a critical time. After the brutality of World War I, many Americans craved “normalcy,” settling into a new era of isolationism, sustained prosperity and limited federal government action. The era of reform and change that helped spur bird-protection legislation had largely ended.

Ultimately, the world is a better place because George P. McLean didn’t quit after his failures as a reform-minded governor of Connecticut. Instead, he returned to serve in the U.S. Senate, where, along with others, he helped end the Age of Extermination. McLean stopped the mass slaughter of one of God’s most beautiful creations and established lasting legal protections for birds that we still benefit from and enjoy today.

David Allen Sibley, author and illustrator of The Sibley Guide to Birds, writes of the book: “On one level this is a fascinating, and thoroughly researched, glimpse into the workings of US politics in the early twentieth century. On another level it’s an inspiring story of one man’s determination and steadfast commitment to securing legal protections for birds. I am glad to know more about George McLean.”

End Notes

Passenger Pigeon, 1829, by John James Audubon (National Gallery of Art, public domain, before the Age of Extermination). Source: https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.32203.html; George P. McLean, age 20. From the collection of Will McLean Greeley. McLean Campaign Button for Governor, 1900, with President McKinley. From the Collection of Dr. Kenneth Florey; McLean and Birding Party, Marsh Island, Louisiana, 1915. From Watkinson Library, Trinity College, Hartford, Conn. Migrating birds By Nefeli.fil – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90123030.

Alexandra Hoff is with RIT Press; Will McLean Greeley is McLean’s great-great nephew. 

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