Platt’s many contradictions included support for imperialist foreign policy

MERIDEN — Senator Orville H. Platt rose to his full height — six feet, four inches. He took a breath, addressed the state legislature and submitted a motion to take down two oil paintings of former Connecticut governors that hung in the state Capitol.

The year was 1861, the early days of the Civil War. The state of Connecticut had voted in favor of the Union and wanted to erase the memory of the two governors for expressing sympathy with the Confederacy.

The legislature carried the motion, the pictures were torn down and Platt earned the nickname "Picture Platt'' in the press. The pictures were replaced shortly after, but Platt made the same point in 1861 that Black Lives Matter protests made in the summer of 2020; symbols matter. 

July 19th marked the 195th birthday of Platt — influential Meriden senator, staunch abolitionist and hardline imperialist. Revered and memorialized by Meriden society at the turn of the century, Platt has since become an obscure figure in history.

Nearly a century after Platt’s death, the local high school that bears his name prepares to launch a landmark Black and Latino studies curriculum that will tackle, among other subjects, the United States’ role as a colonial power through policies shaped and supported by Platt during his time as a powerful member of the U.S. Senate.

Platt the Patriot

Platt was born in 1827 in Washington, Connecticut, studied law, and arrived in Meriden in 1851, from where he launched a storied political career. In quick succession, he became Connecticut’s Secretary of the State, a member of the Connecticut General Assembly and Speaker of the House. He became a U.S. Senator in 1879 and spent 26 years in the Senate. He was part of what became known as the “Senate Four,” a group of senators that determined American policy at the turn of the century.

In addition to ceremonial motions, Platt gave speeches at Meriden town council meetings in favor of funding for Union fighters during the Civil War. 

During his time in the Senate, he was part of the patents committee and advocated in favor of granting full citizenship to members of Connecticut’s first nations and redistributing land to promote public safety and improved education.

“Our obligation to the Indian demands that we should secure for the common Indian of those tribes his rights now denied to him, and give him the opportunity for advancement in civilization and happiness,” he wrote in 1895. 

Platt the imperialist 

However, Platt is best known for his work as the chairman of the Congressional Committee on Cuban Relations that was tasked with determining the future of Cuba after the treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War in 1898. 

Following two years of American occupation, President McKinley ordered a Cuban constitutional convention to be held in Havana. After three months of deliberation, the new Cuban constitution did not have a provision governing the diplomatic relationship between Cuba and the United States. Platt decided to intervene and helped draft a series of conditions that governed the relationship between the United States and Cuba — later known as the Platt Amendment.

The Platt Amendment limited Cuba’s sovereignty as it stated that the newly independent Cuba could not make treaties with foreign powers or accept foreign debt. It also gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and lease American naval stations, one of which became Guantanamo Bay. Although the Platt Amendment was formally repealed in 1934, U.S. protectionism was a feature of American colonialism moving forward.

“The United States will always, under the so-called Platt Amendment, be in a position to straighten out things if they get seriously bad,” Platt wrote in a 1901 letter to E.F. Atkins, an American resident of Cuba.

Less well known is Platt’s involvement in the acquisition of Puerto Rico. Platt followed President Roosevelt’s policy of international expansion and domestic protectionism by protecting American industries from foreign competition by placing high taxes on all imports. Following the end of a war and a devastating hurricane, Platt advised Senator Joseph B. Foraker, the chairman of Congress' Committee on Puerto Rico and the Pacific Islands to tax Puerto Rican imports, especially sugar.

“We proposed to protect our laborers against the competition of the cheap and ignorant laborer,” he advised Foraker. “If we let goods from Porto Rico [sic] in free, we put our home laborers into competition with the cheapest of cheap labor. I already hear the mutterings of the coming storm.” 

Memorializing Platt

Platt died in 1905, but his legacy continued on a national and local scale. Shortly before Platt’s death, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “I do not know a man in public life who is more loved and honored or who has done more substantial and disinterested service to the country… it gives me heartfelt strength to see and consult with so fearless, high-minded, practical and far-sighted a public servant.”

Locally, Platt was remembered as a model of civic virtue and called “Neighbor Platt” by the press. After his death, a commission dedicated a bronze plaque to Platt in the state capital of Hartford and a cast of the plaque is still in Meriden City Hall.

“In Meriden, where he [Platt] resided, he never became greater than his fellow townsmen by whom he was greatly beloved for his many good traits as a citizen,” wrote his biographer in “A Century of Meriden, Connecticut.”

In 1958, Meriden High School split into two schools, both named after late U.S. Senators – Platt and Maloney. The Meriden Record (a predecessor to the Record-Journal)  reported in August of 1956 that the School Building Committee elected to name the west side High School after Platt without contest.

“Both men earned the respect of their fellow citizens here, so that political barriers often were shattered when they sought support from the residents.”

Platt’s living legacy

Little more than a century after Platt’s death, his legacy is far from straightforward. The demographics of Meriden have shifted dramatically and the 2019 census found that Puerto Ricans were about 20% of the population of Meriden. Furthermore, 60% of students at Platt High School are Hispanic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Despite his influence in American politics, Platt remains a relatively obscure historical figure. Platt High School Principal Daniel Corsetti taught social studies at Platt from 2009 to 2016 and remembers teaching about him during history courses.

Platt “came up prominently when we were teaching about colonialism at the turn of the last century,” Corsetti said in a phone interview. “Beyond that, I don't think he figured very prominently as far as who he is or what he did — or why the school was named after him.”

Corsetti thinks that names matter. He said the names of buildings — especially schools — are a bellwether of what a community values and pointed out that during the 1950s the U.S. took a lot of pride in the nation’s ability to influence world politics.

“As far as Senator Platt goes, we are proud to be his legacy,” he said. “Being a Platt Panther is something that's very special. That comes from someplace, it's not just something that's been pulled out of the air. He had a significant meaning to the Meriden community.” 

Corsetti said that Platt is ready to teach the new state-mandated Black and Latino studies curriculum this fall and has two teachers and about 40 enrolled students. He hopes the curriculum is valuable in teaching students from all backgrounds to engage critically with American history, including Platt and the Spanish-American War.

The names of city property, including schools, has been a ticklish issue in recent years — especially following an ongoing controversy over memorials on public property caused by a statue of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in front of Meriden City Hall. 

To address the problem, the City Council created the City Property Naming and Dedication Committee in 2019. The committee was charged with writing guidelines and is set to send in the full list for approval by City Council later this summer, said City Council Majority Leader Sonya Jelks. In addition to her many duties, she is the chairperson for the naming committee and acknowledges the complicated histories behind the names of public property.

Platt “was a prominent person who not only made a contribution to the U.S. government, he also made a lot of contributions to Connecticut. But also, he was someone with a racist background,” she said in a phone interview. “We've had this discussion nationwide during the BLM reckoning: should we be celebrating prominent figures who we may have been proud of then?”

Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She can be reached at Twitter: @lauguzm_n

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The Senate Four: (from left to right) Orville H. Platt (R-CT), John C. Spooner (R-WI), William B. Allison (R-IA), Nelson W. Aldrich (R-RI) | Credit: Library of Congress.
The Platt High School sign at the corner of Coe Avenue and Oregon Road in Meriden. Aug. 11, 2022. | Dave Zajac, Record-Journal

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