Friday, March 30, 2007

1848: America's Coming Out Party...

In last week's TIME magazine there was an article written by novelist Kurt Andersen which discusses America in the late 1840s, particularly in 1848.

Andersen writes that the United States was "coming of age" in 1848 where miraculous transformation in all facets of human life occurred improving the way in which people lived.

In January of 1848, gold was discovered in Northern California. The Gold Rush was upon us and stories of fortunes and failure would become a part of the "American Way".

The beginning of February brought the end of the Mexican War, which extended the United States from Texas all the way to the Pacific. That's a pretty big chunk.

Meanwhile in London, a German Philosopher would frown upon the petty American citizens and their belief of the "bizarre phenomenon" of striking it rich. Karl Marx and his buddy Friedrich Engels were published The Communist Manifesto, causing riots in Europe. Marx and Engels believed that getting rich from gold was something that "was not provided for in the Manifesto" because the philosophy does not believe in the creation of "large new markets out of nothing". Think again gentlemen!

California's Gold Rush turned San Francisco into the largest city west of Chicago. This due in large part to the prospect of fortune.

There were several improvements of speed in 1848. The first being the telegraph. 1848 marked the first year that country was wired. From Boston to New York City to Washington to Chicago and New Orleans, the country could communicate much faster than it could before. What used to take weeks and then days, would now only take seconds. The world was now much smaller.

The same year, in upstate New York, an unprecedented gathering of women demanded suffrage and women's rights.

With the increased speed of the printing presses, newspapers were popping up all over the country and truly came of age in the late 1840s. The Associated Press was formed in 1846.
Andersen claims that "railroad mania" really took flight in the late 1840s. Four times as much railroad track was laid than in 1847.

It was also the late 1840s when Pioneers began their trek across the wilderness in search of a better life.

The 1840s also saw the first department store, the first 'national brand', and the first presidential campaigns. "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!!" Forget the selling of Richard Nixon as president. The US was suckered into electing William Henry Harrison. The Whigs remade Harrison into a great war hero, though he was nothing more than a boring, uninspired military leader. (see the poster on the left)
With an expanded voting base, both parties, the Whigs and the Democrats were prepared to appeal to these new masses and set out on national campaign efforts. Eighty Percent more people voted in this election then in the previous one. The election of 1836 had 1,503,534 total votes, while 1840 had 2,411,808 total votes. William Harrison had nearly as many votes in 1840, 1,275,390, as the entire candidate pool from 1836.

Andersen claims that 1848 saw the country's first theatrical "mega hit", A Glance at New York, which featured dialogue spoken in the vernacular sense. But let's be honest, this came into vogue in the Renaissance as well and was nothing new.

The main fan base of these shows were the heart and soul of the mean streets of the city, forming the first American youth sub-culture. These "Bowery Boys and Girls" were foulmouthed and rambunctious, and according to Andersen, enjoyed physical violence. A precursor to today's youth hip-hop culture.

The article continues in stating that PT Barnum began his traveling show in the late 1840s and such authors as Walt Whitman and Nathanial Hawthorne began their work on the classics Leaves of Grass and The Scarlet Letter respectively. Though I always associated this work by Whitman with the Civil War.

Henry David Thoreau's On Walden Pond experience began in the late 1840s... on this same note, Andersen fails to mention that environmentalist, naturalist, preservationist and writer John Muir journeyed across the Atlantic from Scotland in 1848.

Muir who's works are still read to this day, later founded the Sierra Club. He befriended Teddy Roosevelt in the early 1900s and convinced him that the parks were being mismanaged by the states and the misuse of resources and urged Roosevelt to do something about it. A 'woodsy' guy himself Roosevelt went on to establish the nation's first national bird reserve, which eventually became the Wildlife Refuge System. Roosevelt also charged congress with creating the United States Forrest Service. (Muir and Roosevelt are pictured to the right)

Roosevelt set aside more land for national parks and nature preserves than all of his predecessors combined, 194 million acres. In all, by 1909, the Roosevelt administration had created an unprecedented 42 million acres of national forests, 53 national wildlife refuges and 18 areas of "special interest", including the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps, modern thought, modern communication, modern transportation and modern American life did begin in the late 1840s. It was time unequalled in its aggressiveness towards speed, change and modernity.

Though the some, like Walden, distanced themselves from it. And many still today try to follow in his footsteps to find a balance. If this is you... I suggest reading the works of Thoreau as well as John Muir, it truly is an enlightening, relaxing experience that takes you away from whatever stresses you have.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Father of Our Constitution

March 16th marked the 256th birthday of James Madison, who born into wealth in Orange County, Virginia.

Many, know very little about James Madison. The name is familiar. They know his association with our fledgling nation, but perhaps are not familiar with all of his accomplishments. Some may not even know that he was our 4th President. If this describes you, then feast your brain on a quick bio of 'The Father of our Constitution'.


As a child, Madison was smaller then most of the kids his age. He was also frail and contracted a lot illnesses growing up, which lead him to becoming a hypochondriac. Because his illnesses, real or assumed, required him to miss a lot of school, Madison was a few years older than his classmates.

Being born into the Virginia aristocracy, Madison never had to worry about working for a living but decided to study law, religion and political theory on his own accord. By age 11 it is believed that he had read every book in his Virginia home, Montpelier.

Madison went on to attend The College of New Jersey (Princeton) where he finished 3 years worth of schooling in 2 years. I guess all that reading paid off. His study at TCNJ was cut short for illness and Madison returned home to tutor his many brothers and sisters.

Political Life

Madison never imagined he'd join the ranks of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington in the fight for independence as his confidence within himself was not strong. He didn't think he had anything to contribute to the colonial movements and labeled himself as too "dull and infirmed now to look out for extraordinary things" and he did not "expect a long healthy life".

In December of 1774, Madison was elected to local office as a member of the Orange County Committee. He attended the Virginia convention in 1776 and was later elected to the General Assembly where he served alongside George Mason, Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson.

It was here where Madison realized he and Jefferson shared many of the same political views. The two Virginians grew close, and became life long friends and allies.

While on the General Assembly Madison helped Thomas Jefferson to pass the Statute of Religious Freedom and the two worked together to oppose the Government's support of religion and helped to build the "wall of separation" between church and state.

Madison also worked with another well respected Virginian, the great George Washington at the Annapolis Convention. Here they worked out the navigational rights of the Potomac River.

He also participated in the framing of the Virginia Constitution in 1776, and served in the Continental Congress

National Spotlight

As the United States began to take shape, and after winning the war for independence, with help in many different arenas from the aforementioned Washington, Jefferson, Lee, Mason and Madison the United States was now realizing that their first attempt at Government was not working.

The infamous Articles of Confederation, which worked well enough to get the U.S. through the war was now being exposed as having a weak executive branch with no power to demand taxes from the states and having no way to settle disputes between the states. Additionally each state had its own rules on trading and commerce and it did not bode well for relations between the states.

Something had to change. Enter, James Madison.

Good ol' James came to the convention with the intent to scrap the entire Articles of Confederation and start all over. To support his this, Madison came prepared with his own replacement, the Virginia Plan.

The Virginia Plan was part of the compromise between large states and small states. Small states wanted equal representation, the same as the large states, while the larges states felt they should have more representation than the smaller states. Because, after all, they had more people.

Thus, our 2 tiered congress was born. Small states have equal representation in the Senate (2 per state) and the larger states have more representation in the House. (representation based on population.) There was actually a whole lot more to it, with arguments over how slaves should be counted. If slaves counted as citizens for the south shouldn't they count for taxes too? Thus the 3/5 compromise.. the compromises of this Convention go on and on... but since this is about James Madison, we'll save this for another time...

For now, consider this Part 1 - of the life and times of James Madison.

For information about James Madison's life in Philadelphia, please visit The Daily Life and Diversity of Philadelphia. This is a site I worked on in conjunction with Independence National Park.

Please go to the for James Madison Lesson Plans

James Madison... to be continued...


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Obligatory: Lincoln / Kennedy Coincidences

Having a US History blog without the obligatory coincidences between the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, is like having a little league game without a parent who complains about the ump. You know its coming, you don't want to hear it, but still you find some joy in knowing that it still exists.

I think that most of us have seen this list. It is continuously passed around via email on an endless cycle and will inevitably land in your inbox every year or so, like it did in my inbox this afternoon. My Grandfather sent it to me. And despite how many times I've seen it, and how many times I've looked up the facts to debunk it, I still read each and every word.
Continue reading to the bottom for a link to the debunking of the list.

Mr. Miley, my 10th grade US History teacher from William Tennent High School in Warminster, PA introduced me to this phenomenon. As an open minded high school sophomore I thought it was one of the more interesting things I've ever learned. Mr. Miley was a JFK assassination buff and spent a significant amount of time on the subject. Unfortunately, this and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair are about the only things I remember from that class. I didn't start to appreciate US History until college. And I owe most of this to Dr. Paul Zbiek from King's College in Wilkes-Barre. He lectured by telling a story, and he would plan the classes well by leaving us with cliffhangers. It was great to watch his passion for the Civil War.

Back to the topic at hand...

I've been familiar with these "coincidences" for a while. And I don't think I can really continue this American History blog without getting this entry out of the way so that I can reference it later.

So here it goes... Here are the coincidences

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846. John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.
Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860. John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.
The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters.

Both were particularly concerned with civil rights.

Both wives lost their children while living in the White House.

Both Presidents were shot on a Friday.
Both were shot in the head.

Lincoln's secretary, Kennedy, warned him not to go to the theatre.
Kennedy's secretary, Lincoln, warned him not to go to Dallas.

Both were assassinated by Southerners.
Both were succeeded by Southerners.

Both successors were named Johnson.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808.
Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.

John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839.
Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939.

Both assassins were known by their three names.
Both names are comprised of fifteen letters.
Booth ran from the theater and was caught in a warehouse.
Oswald ran from a warehouse and was caught in a theater.

Booth and Oswald were assassinated before their trials.

So that's the list.... Some of the similarities are kind of eerie, I don't doubt that. Let me continue by giving you the origins of this list.

A short while after JFK's assassination in 1963, this list surfaced and has been continuously reprinted and circulated since. And for good reason. It makes for interesting fodder. However, several of these entries are misleading or just flat out wrong. The majority of the coincidences are simply that, coincidences and should not be tied to any spiritual or karmic motives. If our president in 2o60 is assassinated, I might reconsider this statement.

And often times, this one is added:

A week before Lincoln was shot, he was in Monroe, Maryland. A week before Kennedy was shot, he was with Marilyn Monroe.

The Debunking:

To start, I've personally done some research about the last coincidence and the first thing that jumps out is this. Marilyn Monroe died in August of 1962. Kennedy was shot in November of 1963. Monroe was dead for over a year before the assassination. Do I even have to go on?

No. But I will. Currently, there is no town named Monroe, Maryland. Though there is a Monroe Gardens, Maryland, so this one might be possible.


John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839.
Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939.

This is wrong. Just take a look at any John Wilkes Booth Bio to find out that he was born on May 10, 1838. See it here and here.

And because I couldn't say it better myself, please find a link to where someone has already taken the time to debunk many more of these claims.

I welcome any other facts and information...


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Remember the Alamo?

Of course not. It was yesterday, March 6, 1836 that the Mexican forces recaptured the Alamo, a former mission in the Mexican town of San Antonio. The mission was was held since December of 1835 by Texas freedom fighters.

It was in April of 1836 when the Texans stormed the mission again under the command of Sam Houston, reclaiming the Alamo as their own and gaining independence from Mexico.
Texas would remain as its own independent nation for nearly ten years. In 1845, Texas' legislature voted for annexation to the United States.

1848 brought the Mexican War which came to an end with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty brought even more land to the United States.

The treaty brought us parts of modern-day Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. as well as the all of California, Nevada and Utah. The remaining parts of Arizona and New Mexico would later be purchased from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.
The United States is clearly the aggressor here. Manifest destiny played a huge role in our conquering of Mexican territory.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Did Theodore Roosevelt Really Say That?

"Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country."
- Theodore Roosevelt

These are the true words of Theodore Roosevelt, supposedly taken from a letter written to the President of the American Defense Society on January 3, 1919, three days before he died, ten years after his presidency.

The American Defense Society, who named Roosevelt Honorary President, was ready to launch a campaign to distribute Theodore Roosevelt portraits to schools and organizations in support of their cause, which is what brought Roosevelt to make what would be his last public statement; where he encouraged the United States to "Keep up the Fight for Americanism."

This theme of "Americanism" was a popular topic for Roosevelt, for he believed our nations would fall to ruins because of the "squabbling of nationalities" amongst the "hyphenated Americans."

It was this fear that led him to endorse compulsory learning of English by every naturalized citizen. It was this same fear that prompted Roosevelt to record his infamous statement that "Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or to leave the country". He also added that "English should be the only language taught or used in the public schools."

Another quote from Roosevelt: "It is our boast that we admit the immigrant to full fellowship and equality with the native-born. In return we demand that he shall share our undivided allegiance to the one flag which floats over all of us."

I've seen these statements (or ones very similar) written many times. However they always seem to be associated with many different dates, spanning two years. What I can conclude with near certainty was that Roosevelt said these words years after his presidency. This does not sound like the calculated words of a politician, but rather the tired voice of a strong minded, curmudgeon who loves his country to the point where he doesn't want to see all his hard work crumble in vain. He actually seems a lot like my Granfather.

Regardless of when he said these words, Roosevelt's words ring true for many Americans today. Some things never change.

More Teddy Roosevelt Quotes
Roosevelt on immigration