Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America

In this photo from the book, Herb Clark (left), the family guide, relaxes with Louis Marshall. Photos provided by Adirondack Museum
In this photo from the book, Herb Clark (left),the family guide, relaxes with Louis Marshall. Photos provided by Adirondack Museum

IF WE WERE to make a list of Adirondack families that have left a truly lasting imprint, both here and in the rest of the country, the Marshalls would surely be near or at the top. Most Adirondack enthusiasts are probably familiar with the impressive credentials of Robert Marshall: one of the original Adirondack Forty-Sixers, indefatigable long-distance hiker, author of widely read books on Alaska and forestry, co-founder of the Wilderness Society, and one of the most important American environmentalists of the first half of the twentieth century. But how many know about the distinguished career of his father, Louis Marshall, who left an indelible mark on conservation, constitutional litigation, and the story of civil liberties and anti-discrimination activism? A new biography by M. M. Silver admirably tells us just about everything there is to know about this talented and dedicated American.

Louis Marshall was born in 1856 into an immigrant Jewish family in Syracuse, where he grew up. By his twenties, he was hiking in the Adirondacks and developed a deep love for our mountains, lakes, and forests. In those days, the Adirondacks were already well known as one of America’s great tourist destinations, a wilderness mecca of clean air and water and unparalleled recreational opportunities. And it was one of the chief spots where the wealthy built their summer homes, which Marshall hoped someday to do. But the Adirondacks were also a hotbed of antisemitism, as most of the region’s leading hotels and resorts refused to accept Jews.

After moving to New York City and establishing a lucrative career as a trial lawyer, Marshall, along with a consortium of five other Jewish families who refused to be denied access to the Adirondacks, bought land on the northeast shore of Lower Saranac Lake. In 1899 they hired architect William Coulter to design a cluster of rustic but comfortable camps. Coulter’s plan called for six identical shingle-style homes, one for each family, and a communally used “casino” or clubhouse and a boathouse.

The compound, Knollwood, became Marshall’s treasured retreat from the pressures and stresses of an intense professional life. He spent at least a month-long stretch at Knollwood every summer and supplemented this with as many weekends as he could manage at other times of the year. He filled the bookshelves with Adirondack books and spent much of his time reading, writing, tramping through the woods, fishing, and playing baseball. It was, his eldest son James recalled, the place he took off his jacket and tie.

Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America By M.M. Silver Syracuse University Press, 2013 Hardcover, 616 pages, $49.95
Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America
By M.M. Silver
Syracuse University Press, 2013
Hardcover, 616 pages, $49.95

It was at Knollwood that two of Marshall’s sons, Robert and George, discovered, in the Adirondack library assembled by their father, a collection of the reports to the New York legislature written by surveyor Verplanck Colvin. This led to a fascination with the High Peaks and a scheme to climb all the summits over four thousand feet: hence the origins of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers. When the boys’ mother and Louis’s much beloved wife Florence died, at the age of forty-three, in 1916, Bob was fifteen, George twelve. Both of them found the Adirondacks great therapy. Louis once wrote to his sister, “Robert and George would be perfectly willing to become permanent residents of the Adirondack forests.”

Throughout his adult life, Louis Marshall, in addition to finding in the Adirondacks the spiritual solace that we all love, was actively working to protect what made this region so special. In 1894, he was elected to serve at the New York State Constitutional Convention, where he enthusiastically and eloquently supported the efforts of the New York Board of Trade and Transportation to protect the Adirondacks and Catskills from the ruthless logging that was devastating the state’s mountain forests. The convention adopted the “forever wild” provision that has been in effect, in precisely the same language, ever since.

Marshall considered this the most important work of the entire convention, and he spent the rest of his career defending Article 7 (now Article 14) from various and frequent attempts to circumvent or subvert it, most significantly at the 1915 Constitutional Convention. There he delivered an impassioned defense of forever wild when logging interests, determined to open up the Forest Preserve, sought to have a fatally weaker provision incorporated into a new constitution. Marshall read aloud a long list of delegates to the convention working for big logging companies and then asked, “What would you have left after you have adopted a provision of this character? Nothing but a howling wilderness of trees. Not a wilderness of trees—wild forest trees—but of stumps, enough to make one’s heart sick to behold them.” In the decades after the 1915 Convention, the primary threat to the Forest Preserve was dams, and Marshall joined those dedicated to keeping the state-owned Adirondack forests inviolate.

Silver discusses thoroughly how Marshall’s environmentalism, radically anti-corporate at times, seemed a departure from his otherwise conservative career. He amassed a fortune of many millions practicing business law in New York City; he maintained a productive stock portfolio; he profited handsomely from real-estate investments in Syracuse. Both his environmentalism and his dedication to civil rights for all seemed an anti-establishment diversion from an otherwise conventional life.

The environmentalism culminated in a fiery op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he railed against a proposed constitutional amendment to permit the construction of a road up Whiteface Mountain, a scheme that Marshall saw as a transparent maneuver on the part of North Country business interests to enrich themselves by exploiting and corrupting a publicly owned asset. He waxed eloquent in his defense of forever wild, invoking language that resonates profoundly nearly a century later: “Let us preserve some of the simple things. Let us know there is somewhere in our State a region which is not commercialized and citified, and to which those may repair who yearn for a restoration of their shattered nerves amid the vast silences of the eternal mountains and the primeval forests.” He lost that battle, but the power of his rhetoric suggests the depth of his dedication.

Marshall was also instrumental in establishing the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse in 1911 (this has evolved to be the world-class College of Environmental Science and Forestry, or ESF). He leaned hard on New York Governor John Dix to sign the key legislation, and for the next decade Marshall worked tirelessly to orchestrate and stabilize the complex cooperative arrangement whereby the school that became ESF was on the campus of privately run Syracuse University but was part of the state-administered SUNY system. Silver considers this delicate maneuvering “one of the great acts of finesse in Marshall’s career.”

Outside the Adirondacks Marshall is known for his devotion to protecting minority rights. Beginning with his personal outrage over the ugly and unsubtle antisemitism that pervaded nearly every corner of America he moved on to working on behalf of Haitians, African-Americans, and Native Americans. He was known as a brilliant litigator and writer who worked tirelessly to promote the American ideal of civil liberties and dignity for all. Then, as now, people on the side of equal rights did not always see eye to eye with each other, and Marshall often found himself embroiled in disputes with various Jewish organizations about strategy and tactics.

For the most part he believed in limited government, states’ rights, and narrow interpretations of the Constitution, but when the rights of minorities or of nature were threatened, either by corporate greed or the indifference of a state, he favored expansion of federal authority. In 1916, he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of broadening congressional authority to protect migratory birds. Individual states had contested this expansion of federal power as a violation of the tenth amendment and its limits on federal power. Marshall’s arguments were persuasive and influenced the majority opinion, upholding federal authority, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Marshall’s was a full life of activism and dedication to the twin causes of civil liberties and protecting the environment. Among historians of civil rights and the establishment of a Jewish identity in America, his name has been well known. Silver expands on and confirms his reputation in these arenas. He also adds a thorough account of Marshall’s environmentalism: “When Marshall’s work regarding the Adirondacks and national conservation issues is taken together with its perpetuation and creative expansion in the life of his son, Robert (Bob) Marshall, he becomes more than an asterisk in the environmental history of the United States. The Marshalls were, in fact, premier figures in the history of the environmental movement through the Great Depression.” Previous Marshall biographers have noted his environmentalism only in passing; with Silver’s monumental biography, it has been given its due.