Monday, December 24, 2007

Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of...Eggnog?

The Christmas season has had a long association with an assortment of delicious treats. Everything from candycanes to gingerbread men have delighted the palettes of generations of Americans. One of the most popular items during the Christmas season is eggnog. There is little doubt that numerous American families will gather together today and tomorrow and ring in the holidays with a tall glass of rich eggnog. But just how "Christmassy" and American is eggnog?

Eggnog did not take long to make its first appearance in America. At Jamestown, John Smith mentioned how popular the drink was for the settlers during the Christmas season. Though not celebrated in the same fashion as today, Christmas still provided the Jamestown settlers with an excuse to drink "grog." Grog was colonial slang for any beverage containing rum. The word was eventually changed to "nog."

In a recent article on colonial Christmas, historian Jeff Westover explained the role eggnog played in colonial Christmas traditions:

"Eggnog was one of the most common holiday traditions of Colonial America. Before there were Christmas trees, before there was Santa Claus, and long before there was ever a national holiday called Christmas there was the annual tradition of eggnog.

Eggnog definitely has ties to old England and the time-honored tradition of wassail. Though different from wassail, which used fruits as a base, eggnog's consistent ingredient has always been eggs. But aside from the eggs and milk or cream, eggnog of the 18th century could contain any manner of wine, beer, ale or other spirits. Spices, most notably nutmeg, were also constants.

George Washington's recipe called for one quart of cream, one quart of milk, a dozen eggs, one pint of brandy, a half pint of rye, a quarter pint of rum and a quarter pint of sherry. He was famous, especially after the Revolutionary War, for holding festive Christmas gatherings featuring his unique brand of eggnog."

So as you are celebrating Christmas with your family and you serve yourself a tall glass of delicious eggnog, remember that you are in good company. Americans since the beginning have done the same.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Colonial Hanukkah

As we have discussed in previous postings, colonial society gave little attention to the celebration of Christmas. For various reasons, Christmas was seen in a very different light than it is today. It was not celebrated by the vast majority of Americans, but instead was often seen as a pagan holiday.

Early colonial America was not exclusively the domain of Christians. We know that literally thousands of immigrants from Europe carried a vast assortment of religious practices with them to the New World. One group that is often forgotten are the colonial Jews. Though far from a majority, the Jewish population was spread throughout colonial New England. What is most remarkable about the Jewish population was their devotion to the ideals of the American Revolution. Many of them embraced John Winthrop's preaching that America was to be "a city on a hill." For them, America's quest for independence was reminiscent of David's quest to establish Jerusalem.

A decent number of Jewish soldiers fought in the revolution with the Continental Army. In fact, rumor has it that General George Washington first learned of Hanukkah while at Valley Forge. The rumor states that General Washington was intrigued by a private's odd looking candlestick. Upon questioning the private, Washington learned of the Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah. Washington is said to have been so impressed that he later paid this same private a visit after the war.

The American Revolution also brought new meaning to the celebration of Hanukkah. After all, Hanukkah reminded the Jews of the Maccabean revolt, and of the rededication of the Jewish temple. The revolutionary revolt seemed to fit nicely into the Hanukkah celebration, and the American cause for independence became a passionate desire and battle cry for many Jewish Americans.

***On a personal note, may you all have a wonderful and safe Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc. I will be leaving town for a few days to celebrate with my family but I look forward to an exciting 2008, not to mention many more postings on the greatest period in all of history...THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION!!! A special thanks to all the contributors of this blog (Lindsey Shuman, Brian Tubbs, Steve Becknall,David Mabry, and "Uncle" Fred) for all you contribute. I look forward to seeing you (and your most excellent postings) next year!***

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Religion of the Founding Fathers

This posting is inspired by the comments made in the Huckabee posting below. Raven mentioned that he is opposed to the notion that the Founding Fathers were Christian men. Obviously this is a very popular and controversial topic, so I am expecting this post to be a lot of fun. I look forward to what you all have to say.

In his book The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (which I happen to believe is the best source on this issue), author David Holmes has created a religious test of sorts that I feel is very applicable. Holmes states that, "An examination of history cannot capture the inner faith of any man. But in the case of the Founding Fathers of the United States, readers can use these four indicators to locate the founders on the religious spectrum with some confidence." Holmes has devised a four-point test that I believe is very helpful in understanding the religious nature of the Funding Fathers. These four points allow us to put the faiths of the Founding Fathers into perspective. The points are:

1. Church Attendance
2. Approach to the Sacraments and Ordinances
3. Level of Church Activity and Involvement
4. The Type of Religious Language Used

Using these four criteria, Holmes states where each of the Founding Fathers ranks on the religious spectrum. First off, it is important that we recognize the role that the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening played in shaping the religious beliefs of colonial America. As Daniel Walker Howe states in his epic book What Hath God Wrought, religious ideology, especially Christian ideology, was very different during the colonial era than it is today. By looking at these four points, we can determine to what degree deism and Christianity influenced the individual.

There is of course many other factors than these simple four points, which shaped the individual beliefs of our Founding Fathers. These points, however, can help us see the impact of deism and Christianity on the individual. A deist would be more likely to attend church less frequently, would strongly oppose sacraments and ordinances, would have a low level of church involvement, and would use very neutral religious language when referring to deity. An orthodox Christian, however, would be the exact opposite. With that said, let us look at several of the Founding Fathers using the test provided by Holmes.

George Washington: Obviously Washington is the most popular of the Founding Fathers, and there is a great deal of religious myth that surrounds him. There is perhaps more written on the religious views of Washington than any other Founding Father. His legacy has been used by secularists and religious zealots alike, in order to shape their respective agendas. But what were his religious beliefs? Here is what Holmes states:

1.) Church Attendance: Washington, though not as devout as the typical orthodox of his day, did attend church with some regularity, and as Holmes states, “held organized religion in high regard, and was known to pray privately.”

2.) Approach to the Sacraments and Ordinances: Washington was known for regularly leaving church services before any and all sacraments. Washington strictly refused to partake in any other religious ordinances.

3.) Level of Church Activity and Involvement: Washington was a vestryman in both the Anglican and Episcopal churches, but was never confirmed in any church. Washington strongly opposed any orthodox allegiance to any one church, and remained a non-ordained, non-confirmed churchgoer.

4.) Religious Language Used: Washington’s religious vernacular was mixed with Deist and Christian phrases. Though he regularly referred to deity as “Providence” and “the Grand Architect” Washington also used the words “God” and “Christ” on a regular basis as well.

So where does Holmes rank Washington? He calls him a “Christian Deist.”

Thomas Jefferson

This one is almost too easy. Jefferson attended very little church, he never participated in sacraments and ordinances, was never ordained or confirmed (in fact he believed such practices were morally reprehensible), and his religious language was VERY common for a Deist (just look at the Declaration of Independence where Jefferson uses phrases like "Providence" and "Nature's God"). Jefferson also regularly denied the divinity of Christ, but referred to him as "the greatest philosopher." In his Bible, Jefferson even removed all references to Jesus being a savior figure.

Holmes states, and I strongly agree, that Jefferson was a non-Christian Deist. This one is pretty easy.

Benjamin Franklin
Franklin is an interesting figure. He donated a large amount of money to virtually every religion in Philadelphia and even attended most of them. Franklin, however, was never confirmed, nor did he participate in sacraments and ordinances of any church. Franklin even states in his autobiography that he denies the divinity of Jesus. Holmes also calls Franklin a Deist.

So where are the Orthodox Christians? Here is just a small list:
Patrick Henry
Samuel Adams
John Jay
Martha Washington
Charles Carrol
Elias Boudinot
John Q. Adams

And Christian Deists? Here again is another small list that Holmes mentions:
George Washington
Abigail Adams
Alexander Hamilton
John Hancock

And here is Holmes's list of non-Christian Deists:
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
John Adams
Benjamin Franklin
Thomas Paine

Ok, let the debating begin!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Huckabee and the "Clergymen" Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Last October, during a Republican Presidential debate, candidate Mike Huckabee made the following comment, which has caused quite a stir on several historical blogs:

"When our founding fathers put their signatures on the Declaration of Independence, those 56 brave people, most of whom, by the way, were clergymen, they said that we have certain inalienable rights given to us by our creator, and among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, life being one of them."

I have been intrigued by the numerous responses to this event on various historical blogs that I follow. The Boston1775 blog has witnessed an intense debate over this issue. From what I've been able to gather, most historians are in complete disagreement with Huckabee's statements, and have been piling on him ever since. The general consensus amongst historians that I have read is that only 1 out of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence was a clergyman (John Witherspoon). Huckabee's campaign manager, Ed Rollins, has argued that, "at least 26 of the people that signed were ordained ministers." Rollins was able to come to this conclusion by including signers that simply participated in Bible groups as ordained ministers.

Though I am not fond of mixing politics with history, I think this is a unique chance to look at how history influences political thought. Clearly Huckabee has been trying to appeal (and he has done a successful job if I might add) to the Christian Conservative Right. I am reminded of just how polarizing religion has become in America when I read the words of John Meachem in his book, American Gospel. Meachem stated:

"There is a vast and growing literature about the Founding Fathers...and a steam of strong scholarship about the problem of church and state. Yet because faith is such an emotional subject for both believers and nonbelievers, discussion of the question of religion and public life can often be more divisive than illuminating. Secularists reflexively point to the Jeffersonian 'wall of separation between church and state' as though the conversation should end there; many conservative Christians defend their forays into the political arena by citing the Founders, as though Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Franklin were cheerful Christian soldiers."

The current trend in American politics seems to follow exactly what Meachem has stated. Now the respective supporters of secularism and religion are jockeying to see who can most effectively twist history for his/her benefit. Do you believe that this is what Huckabee is doing when he claims that "the majority" of signers were "clergymen"?

I would reccomend that you all check out the boston1775 piece, and that you also check out this article on the ongoing Huckabee history saga.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Defending the Founders

This is a video I put together for YouTube a while back. In light of the debate taking place in another thread here, I felt I needed to post it. In spite of their faults and shortcomings, the Founding Fathers were great men - the likes of which the United States has not seen on the national stage of leadership since. They deserve our honors and our accolades. I offer this video in their defense and in tribute to them.

If there are some here who believe I am waving the flag too much or honoring our heritage too much....I make no apology for doing so.

America's Jubilee

President John Quincy Adams, the Republic’s 6th executive chief, awoke around 7:00a.m. to a rainy, but sunny day in the nation’s capital. The thermometer read 78 degrees, and the clouds looked as though they would soon disappear. Today was going to be a beautiful day. After a brief breakfast, the President met with his cabinet in the Executive Mansion and then made his way via the Presidential carriage to the capital building. A large procession, complete with military escort, trumpeters, cavalry, and a military band accompanied the President. An energized crowd gathered to watch the spectacle, eager to commence the day’s festivities. After all, today was no ordinary day. Today was America’s Jubilee: July 4, 1826!!!

"America's Jubilee" was arguably the most festive July 4th our country has ever celebrated. Parades, festivals, dances, etc. were held all throughout the infant nation in celebration of America's 50th birthday. Even the legendary Marquis de Lafayette was welcomed back with the highest of pomp and circumstance. A countless number of songs and poems were written to commemorate this landmark day. Here is one of my favorite that I found on an old broadside. The poem was written by a woman from Philadelphia named K.A. Ware:

The deeds of our heroes, their courage sublime,
Have long been the pride, and the theme of our story
And their triumphs shall mark the divisions of time,
And be hallow’d as the Epochs of National glory!
On this festival Day,
Our glad homage we’ll pay
To the God of the Pilgrims! who lighted their way,
And ne’er shall his flame on our altars decline,
Till earth shall to chaos her empire resign!

As the festivities commenced and the congregations assembled, two aristocratic patriots were about to cross the ultimate threshold between this world and the next. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of the most important figures of the American Revolution, would expire on the very same day...America's Jubilee.

Of course it would take some time for the news of their deaths to spread across the countryside, but when it did Americans were left in shock. for Jefferson and Adams to die on the 50th anniversary of American independence was almost too surreal to believe. As one historian put it, "It was as if god himself had put his final stamp of approval on the great American experiment."

America's Jubilee is one of those rare instances when divine fate seemed to sweep across the nation like a wildfire. Even Jefferson, who was never one for divine intervention or religious rhetoric, seemed to get caught up in the spirit of "America's Jubilee." In one of his last letters to John Adams, Jefferson seems to support the notion that America's destiny was sanctioned by deity. In almost prophetic form, Jefferson wrote:

"We shall have our follies without doubt. Some one or more of them will always be afloat. But ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not bigotry. Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism. Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders and hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priests and kings."

America's Jubilee is one of those stories that is both captivating and mindboggling. I'm amazed that it hasn't received more attention by the historical community.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

217 Years Ago

On this day, 217 years ago, the Bill of Rights became law. This was the culmination of literally decades of struggle dating back all the way to the Declaration of Independence. After eight years of bloody conflict, combined with several more years of civil discontent, the United States had finally created a system of laws that proctected individual liberty. James Madison, the origonal mastermind of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, was able to push this document to the forefront of governmental affairs. For the longest time most of America's early leaders wanted nothing to do with a Bill of Rights, but Madison would not take no for an answer. His political genious and tireless effort finally got the Bill of Rights to be accepted. This document has maintained some of our basic freedoms (more or less) for over two centuries.

Death of George Washington

All week, I kept telling myself that I was going to post a note about this on December 14. Then, December 14 came and.....well....I forgot. So, please forgive my being a day late on this, but...

Yesterday, December 14 is the anniversary of the death of George Washington, the father of our country. In the days that followed, Americans awoke to the news that they would have to press on without their greatest leader.

If you'll pardon the borderline hero worship, I have studied George Washington extensively. And, in spite of his flaws (slavery being the biggest), I truly believe George Washington was the greatest statesman this nation has ever known. And I think that, without Washington, the United States of America would have never come to be.

He was the indispensable man - and he remains the greatest of all Americans.

If you haven't checked out Mount Vernon in a while, take a look at their website. And the next time you're in the DC area, stop by. They've made a lot of changes to the estate, and it's definitely worth some of your time to visit.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Documentary of the French & Indian War

We often forget just how important the French & Indian War (7 Years War) really was in shaping the American colonies. So many of the struggles of the French & Indian War paved the way for the American Revolution. In a way, the French & Indian War laid the groundwork for the future to revolution to come. PBS recently did a documentary on the French & Indian War. Here is a video about it:

The Market Revolution in Jacksonan America

I realize that this posting may seem like it doesn't belong on a blog of the American Revolution but hear me out. The Market Revolution (or Capitalist Revolution) is one of the newest and most groundbreaking historical events in recent years. The idea was proposed by Charles Sellers, a professor of American history and author of the landmark book "The Market Revolution." In this book, Sellers explains how American society in the early parts of the 19th century evolved from a localized neighborhood economy to a thriving capitalist society. This change completely revolutionized American society at virtually every level. Cultural and religious ideals were changed, along with the concept of labor. Instead of seeing labor as a necessary evil (which most of our Founding Fathers believed), labor was seen as a blessing from god. Many common people found themselves able to climb the social ladder by working hard and making lots of money (which was very uncommon in the 18th century).

So why do I bring this up? Because the American Revolution was the catalyst that allowed these changes to take place. Instead of seeing the American Revolution as a war between "patriot and loyalist" or "the oppressed rebels and the evil empire," we should strive to understand it as a social revolution. Historian Gordon Wood suggests that the American Revolution was the most successful revolution in world history because it changed political, governmental, social, cultural and religious norms. The colonists were not fighting an "evil" nemesis, but instead were fighting for changes to their social structure (even though many of them never realized it).

We must stop the ridiculous notion that the American Revolution was a war against "evil" oppression. Yes, the British oppressed the colonists to a certain degree, but let us remember that the American colonies were the most prosperous place on earth for the common man. There was more freedom and equality to practice religion, embark on business ventures, or protest in those small colonies than anywhere else on the planet.

The Market Revolution became one of the major changes that these colonists created upon winning their independence. The Market Revolution established the ideology of the American Dream, and helped propel the United States to the front of world affairs.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Informal Book Review: "American Creation" by Joseph Ellis

In recent years, Joseph Ellis has become one of the foremost historians of the American Revolution. His books have been nominated for an array of awards, "Founding Brothers" receiving the Pulitzer Prize. His biographies of Washington and Jefferson have been highly praised as well. His newest book, "American Creation" covers many of the difficulties that the infant American nation faced at the conclusion of the war. As we all know, the United States from 1783-1789 was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which made governing the states in a cohesive manner very difficult. In this book, Ellis covers the issues of the Articles, along with a number of other problems the early American republic faced.

The book was quite entertaining. For those of you that have read Ellis, you know how enjoyable his writing style is. I have to say, however, that I found his book to be somewhat of a repeat of his other works, especially "Founding Brothers." I was expecting to read something that was groundbreaking, but instead found myself reading about stuff I already knew. Clearly this book is written for an audience that has little or no understanding of the American Revolution (I.E. The American public in general!).

My final grade for this book is a B. It was fun to read, but not very enlightening. Certainly this is not another Pulitzer Prize nominee, but it is also not a terrible read.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Boston Massacre: Brilliant Propoganda or the Genuine Article

Of the many events prior to war with Britain, the Boston Massacre is one that receives a lot of attention. Yet this "massacre" only claimed the lives of five citizens (interestingly enough, a recently freed slave of Native American and African American decent, a man named Crispus Attucks, has been labeled as the first casualty of the American Revolution for being the first to die at the Boston "Massacre").

The painting above was done by one Paul Revere (I'm sure we all recognize that name) at the request of Samuel Adams. Revere's origional work was actually done as an engraving, not a painting.

The "Massacre" created such a stir in Boston that many citizens demanded that the soldiers responsible be shot at the same location of the citizens. What is interesting about the Boston Massacre is the fact that John Adams came to the defense of the soldiers. He stated that defending the soldiers in court was one of the noblest things he ever did in his life.

So my question is this: was the Boston "Massacre" a genuine slaughter or was it politically spun into one of the best pieces of revolutionary propaganda? As for me, I side with Propaganda!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

New HBO Series! I Can't Wait!

I'm sure many of you have already heard that HBO has finished production on their newest series entitled, "John Adams." The series is produced by Tom Hanks and is based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize winning book "John Adams." John Adams is played by Paul Giamatti, while Abigail Adams is played by Laura Linney. Click here to see the official website for this upcoming series.

Here is the official preview for HBO's "John Adams":

George Washington Biographer

An interview with historian Richard Brookhiser regarding his biography of George Washington:

Friday, December 7, 2007

220 Years Ago

Sorry for not writing in a while...I've been sick. It's good to be back.

As we all know, December 7 is a day that will forver live in infamy. The entrance of the United States into World War II was a landmark day for this nation, one that must never be forgotten.

As important as Pearl Harbor was in American History, the date carries an even older significance. 220 years ago the United States was convulsing from within over the issue of government. Many within the Constitutional Convention had suggested that the Articles of Confederation be rejected, and a new government created. As we all know, that new government was established with the Constitution. What is often forgotten is the fact that the states still had to ratify the document. On this day, 220 years ago, Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution of the United States of America. This was a pivotal moment because nobody was sure how Delaware would vote (especially with the aftermath of Shays's Rebellion). In the end, Delaware UNANIMOUSLY ratified the Constitution, ushering in America's new Constitutional government.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Ben Franklin, Success Guru

If Ben Franklin were alive today, he would probably be a popular presence in the self-improvement market. He would likely be a favorite at self-help and personal development conferences and a regular bestselling author in the inspirational section of your local bookstore. Don't believe me?

Well, if there's anything incorrect about what I'm saying, it's that I might be LIMITING Dr. Franklin. He would probably also have bestsellers in the religion section, science section, and politics sections of the bookstore. Franklin would be a regular on Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Meet the Press. In short, Ben Franklin would probably be just about everywhere.

Here's an article I wrote a while back on Ben Franklin as America's first success expert. Let me know what you think of the article - and of Dr. Franklin.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Book Review: Rape and Sexual Power in Early America

Having worked in law enforcement for a few years, I have always maintained an interest in the criminal world. One of my favorite aspects of history has to do with the evolution, interpretation and punishment of crime throughout the years. Unfortunately, not much is written on the topic. Sharon Block's "Rape & Sexual Power in Early America" is one of those rare scholarly insights into a topic that is often forgotten or not talked about for obvious reasons. I admire Block because she realizes that hiding from a problem or pretending that there are insufficient resources to make a historical study of sexual crime is foolish. The fact is that there IS information and there ARE sources available to us on this and other criminal issues of the past. Block takes an in-depth look at how sexuality (in particular criminal sex) has changed over the years. In the colonial era, Block makes the important point that consensual sex (meaning what we in the modern society think of as two consenting adult participants), was much different in colonial America. For example, Block points out that consent was rarely if ever an issue in colonial America simply because it was believed that women would always refuse intercourse. In essence, the phrase "No means no" did not deter colonial men who believed that "No means pursue me harder."

Issues like the ones brought up by Block are difficult to discuss, but they are imperative to any historical inquiry. Understanding the criminal aspects of a society, along with what a particular society deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior, can tell a lot about a people. For her efforts (and because the book is very entertaining), Block gets an A.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Look at Benedict Arnold

American Heritage magazine has published an interesting article on Benedict Arnold, entitled "On the Trail of Benedict Arnold." It is written by historian and author W. D. Wetherell.

The article explores the legacy of a man who was one of the greatest heroes of the American Revolution - and also the most despised traitor in American history.

Arnold continues to fascinate us today. How could a man so courageously committed to the cause of America go on to betray that cause (as well as his friendship with George Washington - a man in many ways like a father to him)?

Check out the article, and then let us know what you think of Benedict Arnold.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

James Otis: Early Abolitionist

Remembering the American Revolution is often done from the perspective of valiant patriots on the battlefield, exerting themselves for the "Glorious cause" of independence. Our national sense of pride comes from heroic stories of fearless soldiers, holding steadfast against the mighty arm of the British Army. Rarely are the contributions of peaceful protesters remembered. We often forget the "American Revolution" of the common citizen.

Such is the case with James Otis. Though not a common citizen, Otis's legacy is often shrouded by the contributions of those that fought in the ranks of the Continental Army. Otis was not a warrior. He never fought for independence (in fact, Otis was quite reluctant to break from Great Britain). yet Otis was undoubtedly one of the first influential voices of the American Revolution. Aside from his protests against the British, Otis was also a powerful voice against slavery (which is often a forgotten part of his legacy). Throughout his life, Otis wrote some stirring arguments against slavery. In a 1764 pamphlet Otis wrote:

Does it follow that 'tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool instead of Christian hair, as tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face? Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men's liberty will soon care little for their own.

John Adams recalled Otis speaking against slavery even earlier, during his argument against the writs of assistance in 1761. Adams recalled the moment this way:

He asserted that these rights were inherent and inalienable. That they never could be surrendered or alienated but by idiots or madmen and all the acts of idiots and lunatics were void and not obligatory, by all the laws of God and man. Nor were the poor Negroes forgotten. Not a Quaker in Philadelphia or Mr. Jefferson in Virginia ever asserted the rights of Negroes in stronger terms. Young as I was and ignorant as I was, I shuddered at the doctrine he taught...

Remembering Otis as a pioneer for the later abolitionists should not be forgotten. When dressed in this light, Otis's legacy and contributions become every bit as important as those of the men that fought on the battlefield.

***The excerpt from Otis's pamphlet and the John Adams quote were taken from the Boston, 1775 blog (***

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Joseph Ellis, the Founders, and the Presidency

Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and scholar on the founding era, says that the Founding Fathers would likely see the increased power of the presidency since 1945 as being a "perversion" of what they intended.

What do you think?

Book Review: "An Autobiography of George Washington"

So I can't believe I am actually making a posting on this book. I read this book out of pure curiosity and nothing more. When I heard about it a few months ago I almost couldn't stop laughing. I don't usually like to rip on any author, but this book is just simply ridiculous. The "autobiography" was allegedly written by an Edith Ellis, a semi famous playwright and spiritualist, who received periodic visitations from George Washington in 1944. She would act as scribe for the dead angel/General. About 20 years later, another spiritualist woman named Caroline Myss published the book. Needless to say, the book is filled with obvious errors in the life history of George Washington (perhaps the General went senile in the afterlife and forgot obvious specifics). Or perhaps Ellis (and Myss) were themselves prone to delusions of grandeur.

Whatever the case, this book is absolutely ridiculous. I bring it up here to prove a point: the legacy of the American Revolution (and George Washington in particular) are alive and well, even though their lives are often distorted by ignorant individuals hoping to make a buck. Either way, if you need a good laugh, I HIGHLY recommend this book! If not, then it receives a massive F.

Remembering the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation are one of the most neglected and overlooked aspects of the American Revolution. It is often clouded by the grandiose history of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (not that those documents are undeserving). Many students today have never even heard of the Articles of Confederation. Though their legacy may not be as grand as other historical documents, no true historian can ignore their massive importance in the American Revolution saga. As historian Donald Lutz of the University of Houston put it:

"The Articles functioned as the first national constitution of the United States and, as such, reflected American political theory as it emerged during the Revolution. Equally important, a textual analysis reveals the extent to which the 1787 Constitution was a logical extension of the Articles of Confederation. Most of the Articles were incorporated in the U.S. Constitution, and several key changes found in the later document were present in embryo in the Articles of Confederation."

To understand the federal government and the Constitution one must first understand the Articles of Confederation. It was an essential first step in shaping American political ideology. One also gains a greater appreciation for the truly remarkable achievement that was the Constitution when we consider that the Articles of Confederation was THE governmental system of the United States. In essence, the Constitutional Convention was a bloodless coup d'etat when we consider the role of the Article of Confederation.

In addition, understanding the Federalist Papers (and anti-Federalist Papers) can only be accomplished with a strong understanding and knowledge of the Articles of Confederation.

Of course we must also keep in mind the limitations of the Articles of Confederation. After all, they were replaced with a more centralized system of government created under the Constitution. James Madison called the Articles, "a blessed stumbling block that re-charted America's course." Despite its faults, the Articles of Confederation should be remembered as a critical stepping-stone in what the founders have called, "The American experiment."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Viva La France!

Many people don't realize this, but the American Revolution is often considered to be the first world war. The involvement of Britain and France (along with the often forgotten Spain) propelled the war to a larger level of importance. As we all know, Benjamin Franklin's efforts to secure French aid was a major turning point in the war. Yet so many people still neglect to mention the true significance of French aid during the war. The involvement of France put such a stress on the British that had never existed before. Even if French involvement was limited early on, their mere presence was invaluable.

Most of the fighting betweeen the British and France took place in the Caribbean. Again, most people forget that the Caribbean (and much of South and Central America) was considered to be the economic future for Europe. North America was only an afterthought. The Caribbean's importance took a tremendous amount of British military resources to defend, especially with France now joining with the Unites States. Because of this, only a limited amount of British forces remained in North America to fight the "rebels."

Let us not forget the importance of France (or the Caribbean) when it comes to the American Revolution. They played a very important role.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

George Washington: Spymaster

Click on the above YouTube video to see an interview with author Alexander Rose, who discusses his book Washington's Spies.

One of the many generally underappreciated facts about George Washington and the founding era is that he (and it) really saw the beginning of America's spy program. Washington was a brilliant spymaster, and his network of agents and informants played a key role in winning the War for Independence.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Burr v. Arnold: Who was the bigger traitor?

Most of us know the stories surrounding Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr. Both men have become synonymous with treason. Arnold conspired with the British during the war, while Burr conspired against the United States to steal New Orleanes after his duel with Alexander Hamilton. Prior to their treason, both men served the American cause with great zeal, contributing a tremendous amount to the American cause.

So which of these men is the bigger traitor? Does Burr win the title for his attempt to lure the southern states ay from the union and for his attempt to take control of the Mississippi by conquering New Orleanes? Or does Arnold win the title for his attempt to give the British control of the Hudson River by surrendering Westpoint?

In my opinion, Burr wins this head-to-head matchup easily. Your thoughts...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Colonial Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving address from the "father" of our nation. Click to enlarge:

Monday, November 19, 2007

Movie: "Amazing Grace" Review

Normally I don't like to critique historical movies simply because it is problematic at best. Putting history and Hollywood together in the same sentence is almost like putting Hillary Clinton and John McCain together on the same ticket. Usually, it just doesn't mesh. I realize that viewing a movie for its historical value can be a futile effort (one that most Americans fall victim to). With all of that said, however, I want to give the highest praises I can for the movie "Amazing Grace." It is the story of the infamous William Wilberforce, who was the prominent anti-slavery voice in Parliament during the colonial era. The movie is from the perspective of the British (particularly the political participants in Parliament) and does a great job depicting the political struggles Wilberforce faced.

Of course the movie is not perfect. There is little depiction of slavery or of actual slaves. Again, the movie is from the perspective of Parliament primarily. There are also some historical mistakes in the story as well. Despite these errors, this movie gives a fantastic portrayal of colonial Britain and of the political struggle to outlaw the British slave trade.

I would reccomend this movie to anyone interested in the topic. It earns an A-.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Book Review: "Faiths of the Founding Fathers"

The Founding Fathers and religion has been a very hot issue in recent years. In his book "Faiths of the Founding Fathers" David Holmes helps to resurrect the key elements that made colonial religion distinct from modern practices. Holmes effectively demonstrates the role and importance of the Enlightenment and Deism during the 18th century. Along with recreating the religious atmosphere of the 18th century, Holmes also gives a detailed analysis of several Founding Fathers and their personal beliefs of God, religion, heaven, hell, etc.

This is a wonderful book! Most of the books that talk about religion and our Founding Fathers carry a strong bias with them. There is almost always an agenda to their approach. Holmes, however, does not try to portray the Founding Fathers as zealous Christians or as Atheists. Instead he focuses on the facts using a large amount of primary sources to back them up.

The main thesis that Holmes tries to get across is that colonial religious ideology was very different than it is in our modern times. Holmes makes it clear that the Founding Fathers had different concepts of Christianity than exist today. Holmes sums up the Founding Fathers by calling them "Theistic Rationalists", meaning that many of them embraced religious ideologies, but rarely gave allegiance to a particular sect. Of course Holmes mentions the few founders (like Patrick Henry) that were strongly devoted to a particular church, but he suggests that this was the exception to the rule.

I would recommend "Faiths of the Founding Fathers" to anyone that is interested in the religious aspects of 18th century colonial America, or interested in the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers.

Overall, this book gets an A- (The minus is because he could have gone into more detail).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Did George Washington Pray at Valley Forge?

Nearly every American has seen this painting. In fact, it has become one of the best selling pieces of art in recent years. Homes, churches, office buildings, etc decorate their walls with this extremely powerful portrayal of America's first president. Completed in 1976 by Arnold Friberg, the painting was in commemoration of America's bicentennial festivities. But how accurate is it? Recent inquiry into the religious life of George Washington has uncovered some interesting findings. Did Washington actually pray at Valley Forge?

The original story of George Washington kneeling in prayer comes from a source that is questionable to say the least. The story allegedly came from an Isaac Potts, who is the supposed eyewitness to this event. It is said that Potts was riding along one day when he came across General Washington, hidden in the woods and in deep prayer. Potts, who was against the war, allegedly had a change of heart upon seeing the General in prayer. This story went unreported for roughly 40 years until Reverend Nathaniel Snowden revealed the story, which he had recorded in his journal. Here is an excerpt from that journal:

I tied my horse to a sapling & went quietly into the woods & to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, & the cause of the country, of humanity & of the world.

Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying. I went home & told my wife. I saw a sight and heard today what I never saw or heard before, and just related to her what I had seen & heard & observed. We never thought a man c’d be a soldier & a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington. She also was astonished. We thought it was the cause of God, & America could prevail.

The powerful imagery of General Washington beseeching God to bless and protect his army is moving to say the least. The problem with the story, however, is that there is no proof that Rev. Snowden ever or knew met Isaac Potts. In fact, there are several problems in the Journal entry. Snowden records the name of Potts's wife to be Sarah, when in fact her name was Martha. The family biographers of the Potts family also point out that Isaac Potts did not work at or around Valley Forge until after the war. Some historians have even suggested that Snowden later reported the story to be somewhat inaccurate, when faced with the evidence. Joseph Ellis, a biographer of Washington, has even pointed out specific moments when Washington recorded the fact that he detested praying on his knees.

This story has received incredible publicity and attention over the years. In 1866, artist John McRae was commissioned by the United States to create an engraving of this event.

Later, the Valley Forge Park Commission was given a grant to create a statue of McRae's engraving, which was to be placed at the entrance to Valley Forge Park. The Park authorities refused, stating that there was ample evidence to suggest that the Washington prayer story was a hoax. Despite the decision of park authorities, tours were conducted until roughly 1930, which took travelers to various locations where Washington had allegedly knelt in prayer.

Despite your personal feelings, the Prayer at Valley Forge has become an important symbol for millions of Americans. Even if it is a fraud (and there is a lot of evidence to suggest so), the story of America's first Commander-in-Chief kneeling in prayer has been a source of inspiration for generations of Americans.

A Problem With Early American Historiography?

Over the yars I have noticed that the influences of politics, religion, etc have managed to infiltrate the study of history. There may be no better example of this than the historiography of the American Revolution. One only needs to brouse youtube to realize how polarizing people have become over a variety of issues. It is irresponsible to "tweak" history to fit a particular agenda, but it is being done every day. The religious right in this country strives to depict our Founding Fathers as hard-core Christians (in a very modern sense by the way), while the liberal left has made our Founders out to be purely motivated by secularism.

To be honest, I am outraged at both the religious right and the liberal left. They both see no need for compromise or for an objective view of historical events. Instead, they both inject their own doctrine by misquoting or misrepresenting those of the past.

The reality is that our nation's founders were NOT what we wish them to be. Colonial America was a completely different word. Social structures, religious and political ideologies, and cultural norms were very different then than they are today. To compare the two only leads to problems. If you were to ask a colonial citizen what their definition of "patriotism" "liberty" "freedom" or "independence" was, they would give a very different answer than somebody who has lived in our modern world. Our concepts about God, religion, politics, freedom, equality, society, gender and America have all changed. It's about time people understood that.

Morristown: An Equal to Valley Forge

Most of us are aware of the stories that surround Valley Forge. The horrible winter camp of 1777-1778 claimed the lives of roughly 2000 men. Suffering from hunger as much as they were disease, Washington's Army was even forced to eat the leather from their shoes. Joseph Plumb Martin comments that the British could have tracked the Continental Army by simply following the blood trails left from the barefoot soldiers.

Apart from the suffering, one of the principal reasons that Valley Forge is seen with such intense historical fervor is because that winter can be seen as a turning point in the war. Benjamin Franklin's efforts to gain French support were about to be solidified, and Friedrich Baron von Steuben had installed new discipline to Washington's army.

In contrast, the winter camp at Morristown in 1780 receives less attention. The winter of 1780 has been recorded as the coldest of the entire American Revolution (not to mention one of the coldest recorded in American History). In terms of suffering, Morristown equals Valley Forge. Though more men died at Valley Forge, the winter of 1778 was mild compared to 1780. It was while at Morristown that Washington learned that the French aid had primarily gone to the Caribbean, causing the Commander-in-Chief additional panic. It was also at Morristown that Benedict Arnold, Washington's former comrade was court martialed, causing additional psychological and emotional strain. Though Valley Forge receives most of the attention, let us not forget Morristown. It was just as important (and trying) as was Valley Forge.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Romans 13 and the American Revolution

Most historians would agree that our Founding Fathers (and a large majority of the colonial public) were very apprehensive about actually breaking from Britain. In reality, most of the protests during the early years of the Revolution (the Stamp Act protests, Boston Tea Party, etc.) were acts of protest not rebellion. The fact of the matter is that most people were reluctant to embrace independence until 1776, and even then, many still had reservations.

One of the interesting facts that allude to this comes from the debate over Romans chapter 13. Both the British and the colonists repeatedly read the words of this chapter, which states that rebelling or overthrowing a government was sinful in the eyes of god (or at least that is how it was interpreted back then). Countless numbers of preachers gave sermons on Romans 13, begging the people to keep with the laws of god and reject the idea of overthrowing government. As one historian put it, “under the Framers' understanding of Romans 13, the American Revolution was not an act of anarchy or rebellion; rather it was an act of resistance to a government that violated the Biblical purposes for which God had ordained civil government.”

Several other preachers, however, suggested that since the king was the ultimate source of divine governmental power, then he should be embracing Romans 13 as well. American colonists were quick to realize the hypocrisy that existed in the King, since they felt he was denying the colonists their legal rights. By understanding scripture in this way, more and more colonists felt justified in embracing independence.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Natve American Wars: A New Perspective

For centuries the historiography of the American Revolution has focused primarily on the colonial perspective. We teach and learn about the revolution from a viewpoint that often neglects to mention the opinions and motivations of others. Don't get me wrong, I still maintain that teaching the "traditional" historiography of the American Revolution (i.e. The Stamp Act, Boston Tea Party, Lexington & Concord, etc) is extremely important. For this post, however, I would like to deviate from the traditional history we all know so well.

When one takes an in-depth look at the American Revolution from the perspective of Native Americans, a very different and unique history comes to light. Looking specifically at the wars of Native Americans we see that this conflict was longer and more intense than we once thought. Traditional historiography teaches that the American colonies first endured the 7 Years War (or French & Indian War) from roughly 1754-1763. Following this war, America was again gripped with the war of independence from 1775-1783. A period of peace was then disrupted with the War of 1812, which lasted roughly from 1812-1815.

Now, if we forget the traditional historiography and see the same time period from the perspective of Native Americans, a different story emerges. Let us begin in 1754 with the French & Indian War. Native American tribes were divided on the issue of loyalty. Some favored France while others favored Britain. In the end, as we know, Britain emerged victorious and began a policy with the Native American tribes that greatly damaged relations. As a result, Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763 irrupts. At the conclusion of Pontiac's Rebellion, other Indian uprisings occur throughout the frontier, which last until the American Revolution. With the American Revolution, Native American tribes again choose sides (many fighting for the British) from 1775-1783. At the conclusion, Native tribes were again treated to less than favorable treaties and practices that kept tensions high. As a result, further war came about. From the conclusion of the American Revolution to 1794 the former colonies were forced to deal with the Chickamauga Wars. In the north, other tribes began the Northwest Indian War from 1785-1795. At the conclusions of those conflicts, other smaller wars were fought on the frontier. During the War of 1812, the famous Indian warrior Tecumseh initiated the Creek wars, which let to the infamous battle of Tippecanoe.

So what am I getting at? Look at the dates. What we think of as SEPARATE wars from an American perspective could actually be seen as one long continuous war from the perspective of Native Americans. Look again at the dates:
French & Indian War: 1754-1763
Pontiac's Rebellion: 1763-1766
Smaller Frontier Wars: 1766-1773
American Revolution: 1775-1783
Chickamauga Wars: 1779-1794
Northwest Indian War: 1785-1795
More Frontier fighting: 1800-1810
Tecumseh & Creek Wars: 1812-1814

From the perspective of Native Americans, this is one long war, which they had been fighting even before the French & Indian war. Perspective is an interesting thing huh!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Book Review: "Race and Revolution" by Gary Nash

I realize that this is not a new book, but I still think it deserves some mention. I read "Race and Revolution" a few years back while I was still in my undergrad. It is one of the most insightful books I have ever read. The book completely changed the way I think about slavery and its significance during the American Revolution. We are often taught in high school that colonial society was somehow ignorant of the horrors of slavery, and that slaves themselves were too ignorant to know anything else. This complete falsehood is addressed in Gary Nash's book. The book is small (only 150 pages or so) but provides ample evidence to defend its claims. There are also several primary source documents that Nash added at the end of his narrative.

I would reccomend "Race and Revolution" to anyone interested in the history of the American Revolution. It is an essential part of our nation's past that needs to be told. I give this book 5 stars!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Presidential Elections and the 3/5 Compromise

During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison noted an important observation he had made. He claimed that of all the difficulties that separated Northern and Southern states, slavery was by far the biggest. As we all know, the founders of the American Republic sanctioned a 3/5 compromise to the Constitution. This compromise guaranteed the Southern states greater representation in Congress by counting slaves as 3/5 of a person. Essentially, this meant that the South would have a larger say in government at the expense of its slave population (which of course was not allowed to vote).

Northerners saw this as misrepresentation. Their feelings were that since slaves could not vote, they should not be counted amongst the general population of the South. In essence, the North felt cheated by the hypocrisy of the South's demand for greater representation, especially since the representation came at the expense of slaves.

The effects of the 3/5 Compromise became evident at election time. In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams by only 7 electoral votes. The election was clearly divided by the slavery issue. The north had predominantly gone with Adams, while the South sided with Jefferson. As the votes were counted, Northern politicians quickly realized that without the 3/5 Compromise, Jefferson would have defeated. The fact that slaves had been counted as part of the South's representation had given Jefferson the victory. Later elections would have the same results. The election of James Madison and Martin Van Buren would all be influenced by the 3/5 Compromise.

It is worth noting that the South owed a tremendous political debt to a large chunk of the population they chose to keep in bondage.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Relic of the Revolution

A little over a year ago, this flag from a Connecticut regiment of colonial soldiers, was auctioned off in New York for $17.4 million. The origional owners of the flag were the decendants of a British soldier that captured the flag over 220 years ago. Upon his return to England, the flag became a family heirloom, handed down from generation to generation. It wasn't until 2006 that the decendants of this British soldier decided to auction off the flag at an American aution. The flag, which has been exceptionally cared for, is one of the best conditioned flags of the revolutionary era. If you look closely, you can still see a blood stain left from a colonial soldeir that was either killed or wounded. This certainly brings the reality of the American Revolution (which can often be forgotten in the study of history) to life. The anonyous bidder has stated that he plans to sell the flag to the Smithsonian in the near future.

Jefferson-Jackson Day

As we are all aware (and often detest), the presidential election for 2008 is picking up steam. I read just the other day (and was not aware of this) that the Democratic Party hosted its annual Jefferson-Jackson Day in Iowa this past week. It has become a very old tradition in which the Democratic Party hosts a dinner and celebration in honor of the memory of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (oh, and they try to raise a bunch of money as well). In contrast, the Republican Party hosts a Lincoln Day dinner, which has the same goals.

I think it is interesting (and probably not a bad thing) that the memory of our great leaders of the past are commemorated. What I wonder about though is what Jefferson, Jackson (and we might as well throw Lincoln in here) would think about it. Thomas Jefferson said on many occasions that he hated political parties and that he would rather go to hell than join one. Lincoln had comments that were similar (sorry everyone, I realize Lincoln does not fit into this blog's topic and niether does the Democratic/Republican campaign of 08. I am just trying to bring to light the fact that we still use these men today for our own agendas).

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

George Washington's "Navy"

In late 1775, as the fires of revolution and war were becoming hotter each day, General George Washington commissioned two small schooners (named "Lynch" and "Franklin"), to patrol in and around Boston Harbor, and to harass the British whenever possible. This small "fleet" of ships eventually included four additional boats, which were officially commissioned by General Washington as the first "armed Vessels" of the "United Colonies of North America." In essence, this small fleet of ships became America's first Navy.

Washington himself financed the six-ship fleet out of his own pocket. Knowing that this small rabble of a Navy could never stand up to the mighty arm of the British, Washington requested that a unique banner be flown by each of these six ships. At Washington's request, this "white flag, with a green pine tree, and the inscription, 'An Appeal to Heaven'" became the official banner of the "Washington Navy." In addition, Washington ordered that all crewmen of these ships be dressed in an green and white uniform.

Interestingly enough, this fleet lasted throughout the duration of the Revolutionary War, carrying out a diverse number of assignments and playing a number of different roles in the process.

Don't Forget James Otis

When we think about great writers of the American Revolution, the obvious name that surfaces to the top is usually Thomas Paine. Rarely is the name James Otis on that list. Unfortunately, this important and influential man is often forgotten. While there can be no doubt that Thomas Paine is the Revolution's premiere writer, and that "Common Sense" was THE blockbuster piece of the time, we should not neglect to give James Otis the credit he deserves.

During the early years of the revolution (roughly from 1763-1774), James Otis was at the vanguard of colonial rebellion. It is Otis that is given credit for the infamous phrase, "taxation without representation is tyrrany," an important piece of political propoganda during the Stamp Act. Otis became the major distributior of patriotic colonial literature during these years. His intense passion for the "glorious cause" was often seen as mental instability. John Adams even suggested that Otis be locked up for his obvious insanity.

Otis, however, was not insane. His extreme devotion was based on a strong distrust of the British imperial agenda in the colonies. Otis always maintained that the colonies should be left alone, or war would be the result. It should be remembered, however, that Otis was not a strong advocate for independence. He simply believed that the colonies should be loosely governed and that they should keep their allegiance to the crown.

The legacy of James Otis, though overshadowed by others, should be remembered as one of the most important factors during the early years of the revolution. It is thanks to Otis that many of the early fires of revolution recieved the kindling they needed.

Monday, November 5, 2007

SAR Honors Lafayette

A videotaped tribute to one of the true heroes of the American Revolution

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The American Revolution: A Blessing for England?

Is it possible that the American Revolution was just as beneficial (if not more beneficial during the 19th century) for Great Britain? In his book "Rise and Fall of the British Empire" author Lawrence James devotes an entire chapter to this assertion. He claims that during the years immediately following the war with the American colonies that Britain reaped huge rewards.

For the British, the reality of parting ways with its former American colonies was better than most expected. Trade between the two nations actually increased after 1783, particularly cotton exports, which augmented from 15.5 million pounds in the 1780’s to 28.6 million pounds in 1800 (James, 119). Along with an increase in trade, the British Empire benefited by not having to pay for the protection of its American colonies, which had proven very costly in the past. American colonial independence also added a measure of credence to Adam Smith’s assertions that the American colonies were more of a liability than an asset. In his book Wealth of Nations, Smith pointed out that colonies were beneficial to empire, so long as control could be maintained. The American colonies, however, had become “less in the view and less in the power of the mother country,” and were therefore a liability

The reality of the post-war period was that the American colonists needed the British more than the British needed the colonists. As James points out in his book:

“Naturally there were alarms about the commercial consequences of a break between Britain and America,” but those fears subsided as British experts came to the realization that the infant American republic, 'could not survive economically without Britain'” (119).

The fact that the United States joined in an economic accord with thier former rivals is also indicative of how powerful the British economy really was. This economic agreement between America and Britain (known as the Jay Treaty) helped to deliver the former colonies from economic ruin (not to mention the fact that it made Britain a lot of money). As Joseph Ellis points out in his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, “The Jay Treaty, in effect, bet on England…as the hegemonic European power of the Future, which proved prophetic” (136-137).

Often we look at the American Revolution from the perspective of the colonists. When we take a step back, however, and examine the revolution's impact on everyone involved, we can see just how "revolutionary" the American Revolution really was. Not only did it benefit the colonies, but it also greatly benefited Britain.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Merry Colonial Christmas

The Christmas season will soon be upon us, so I thought that a posting on this topic would be appropriate. The bright and joyful holiday we celebrate as Christmas, arguably the most popular holiday in all of America, was seen in a very different light by colonial America. Instead of lavishly decorating the town and cheerfully celebrating the holiday spirit, those of America's early years took a very indifferent stance towards Christmas. As historian Nicole Harms put it,

"Christmas in colonial America did not resemble the brightly lit festivities we celebrate today. In fact, many colonial religions banned celebrations of the holiday, claiming that it was tied to pagan traditions. The New England Puritans passed a law in Massachusetts that punished anyone who observed the holiday with a five-shilling fine. The Quakers treated Christmas Day as any other day of the year. The Presbyterians did not have formal Christmas Day services until they noticed that their members were heading to the English church to observe the Christmas services. This sparked the Presbyterian Church to start services of their own."

There can be little argument that many of the festivities we use to commemorate Christmas are deeply rooted in pagan tradition. In today's society this is hardly noticed, but in Colonial America it was a well known fact, which turned many Christians off to the holiday. It wasn't until the mid to late part of the 19th century that Christmas took on a central role in American holidays. For literally centuries, Christmas was a quasi-holiday, often ignored by the masses. Christian churches were less zealous to see it celebrated than they are today. There is no doubt that the spirit of Christmas has evolved right along with our nation.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Washington the Warrior

I know this alreay aired last year, but I hear that the History Channel will be airing it again in December:

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Book Review: "Revolutionary Mothers" by Carol Berkin

I wanted to give some kudos to Carol Berkin for her book, "Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence." This was not only an entertaining read, but was also extremely insightful. I've always been interested in women's history (particularly in the colonial era) and this book is one of the best.
Berkin's analysis begins with a brief overview of the social/cultural norms of women during this period. She then explains how the American Revolution helped to change many of those norms. Berkin focuses on how women engaged in various activities that helped the war effort, but also mentions a few of the a-typical contributions made by women. For example, Berkin tells of how some women seduced the British, and how Washington used women as spies. Berkin also mentions the contributions made in actual battle by a few women, when the occasion arose.
The best part of this book is that Berkin focuses primarily on the common woman. Though she mentions women like Abigail Adams and Martha Washington, they seem to take a back seat in this book (which is a first). Berkin also brings up the contributions of Black women to the cause.
Overall, this was an excellent book that I would reccomend to anyone that enjoys the history of this time period. I promise you will enjoy it!

Native American Influence on the Constitution

Recent scholarship on the history of the early American republic has uncovered some interesting insights into what influenced the establishment of our nation. One of the most interesting studies in recent years has to do with the influence of various Native American tribes on the Constitution. Certainly there is no doubt that numerous factors influenced the creation of the Constitution. It is unlikely that only one source or influence was at work. With that in mind, I think it is worth mentioning what some historians have been discussing when it comes to Native American influence on the creation of the Constitution. Here is a short quotation from James Mann, one of the leading writers on this topic:

"So vivid were these examples of democratic self-government [from colonial Indian history] that some historians and activists have argued that the [Indians'] Great Law of Peace directly inspired the American Constitution. Taken literally, this assertion seems implausible. With its grant of authority to the federal government to supersede state law, its dependence on rule by the majority rather than consensus and its denial of suffrage to women, the Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the Great Law. But in a larger sense the claim is correct. The framers of the Constitution, like most colonists in what would become the United States, were pervaded by Indian images of liberty"


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shay's Rebellion According to The History Channel

The 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America - Shay's Rebellion: America's First Civil War - January 25, 1787

Bill Plympton animates this chronicle of the post-Revolutionary War rebellion that helped inspire the drafting of the Constitution.

This is a short video from The History Channel's The 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. Did you see it? Comments?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Influence of Franklin's "Join or Die"

In early 1754, Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin became one of the earliest political cartoonists in American history. As a printer, Franklin had regularly published political commentaries on various issues. His "Join or Die" publication, however, was quite different and would be remembered for generations to come.

During the early part of 1754, Franklin became quite concerned about the security and future of the British colonies. He believed that each individual colony was going too far in its own direction, and thus neglecting the need for unity. As a result, Franklin created this early political cartoon that served as a call for unity. The cartoon (originally done as a wood carving) was posted not only in Franklin's paper, but was distributed across the colonies. The snake (each section representing an individual British colony), was purposely cut into pieces, suggesting that death would come not only to the snake, but to the colonies as well if they chose to stay divided. (It is also worth noting that 18th century society believed that a snake would come back to life if the pieces were all put together and buried before sundown).

During the French and Indian War, Franklin's "Join or Die" slogan was used as a battle cry, inspiring colonies to unite against the French. In the years prior to the American Revolution, Franklin would again use his "Join or Die" logo to promote union with the British (Franklin even suggested to Parliament that the colonies could be joined with Great Britain in the original Acts of Union, which had united Scotland and England). England's passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 gave Americans a cause to rally around. Naturally, Franklin's slogan was brought out of the closet, this time to rally against the British.

With the onset of the American Revolution, patriots from across the colonies used Franklin's "Join or Die" to promote the cause of independence. The slogan could regularly be seen in the windows of shops, on flags, and in newspapers.

Years later, Northerners would again resurrect Franklin's political cartoon to promote the cause of unity in the early years of the Civil War. There are even more recent instances of "Join or Die" being used to promote a political cause. During the 2000 presidential election, Republicans raised the banner of "Join or Die" to promote unity in the party. I guess this is proof that political cartoons may evolve, but the "classics" never die. I'm sure we have not seen the end of Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" slogan.

The "Dirty Work" of John Adams

Of all the Founding Fathers, there is perhaps no more confusing character than John Adams. As one of his biographers put it, Adams was a man of "constant highs and lows," he was "plagued with a sense of inferiority" and "an iron will to achieve greatness." Adams "struggled with himself to achieve inner peace and public praise." He was a man who not only had an unconquerable ambition to achieve greatness, and the intellect to back it up, but also sought to cultivate personal humility. This inner battle between the ambitiously vocal Adams and the patiently reserved Adams has provided historians with a valuable insight into the mind of one of our most interesting Founders.

This inner battle within the psyche of John Adams was regularly brought to the service. It comes as no surprise that Adams had a difficult time keeping and making friends. As Joseph Ellis put it, "The only conversation Adams understood was an argument." Understandably, this caused Adams a great deal of stress and problems.

Despite the personal struggles within his own mind, John Adams's accomplishments are truly in a league of their own. Not only was he present for the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Paris, but also became the nation's first Vice-president. As we all know, he would later fill the presidential vacancy left by George Washington, becoming the second President of the United States.

With such an extensive resume, one would think that Adams's place in the pantheon of great Americans would be secure. For Adams, however, such achievements were clouded in a bleak fog of pessimism. Instead of achieving "greatness," Adams went to his grave believing that his role in the revolution would be completely shrouded by the accomplishments of Washington, Franklin and Jefferson. Essentially, Adams would be remembered for the "dirty work" that needed to be done, but brought little recognition. For example, his defense of British soldiers for their "crimes" committed during the Boston Massacre earned him many skeptics. During the Continental Congress, Adams felt that his voice had been overshadowed by the Southern delegates. Later in the second Congress, Adams was assigned (along with Benjamin Franklin) to a committee with the task of drafting the official document of independence. Believing the assignment was to be a side note in history, Adams refused the task of authoring the document. By default, the assignment fell to the youngest member of the committee, Thomas Jefferson. As we all know, Jefferson's name is now synonymous with independence, while Adams is less than an afterthought.

Adams's presidency is another example of his "dirty work." As the successor to George Washington (a figure that was larger than life), Adams was faced with an impossible chore. How did one follow in the shoes of the 6'4" General that secured America's independence? Adams's entire presidency was plagued with such inadequacies. The constant comparisons to Washington, coupled with the growing political factionalism in the nation, left Adams looking like a deer in the headlights. In 1800, Adams would yet again play second fiddle to Thomas Jefferson, losing his bid for a second term.

The plague of being called to do America's "dirty work" seems to be a constant theme throughout the life of John Adams. Though pessimistic about his ultimate place in history, John Adams has been remembered today as the man who did what others could not (or were too afraid to try). Washington, Jefferson and Franklin may have their faces on currency, and be remembered as the "big three" of the revolution, but they can never lay claim to the "dirty work" of the revolution. That distinction rests exclusively with one man.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Edmond Genet and the "Plot" to Destroy the Republic

During the early years of the new American republic, scandals and conspiracies ran ramped. Division between those for a strong federal system of government (the Federalists) and those for limited centralized power (the Democratic-Republicans) grew to create a widening rift in the political arena. Issues such as the Jay Treaty had caused an uproar amongst Democratic-Republicans that only intensified with the election of John Adams. The political stance of Washington and Adams (which gave economic favor to the British) deeply angered Democratic-Republican supporters (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison being the primary leaders of that movement). Jefferson and Madison believed in giving strong support to the French cause that was rapidly moving toward revolution itself. In their minds, to deny the French would be treasonous against the very ideals of the revolution itself. As war between England and France continued to grow, America's economic preference with the British made relations with the French extremely tense. The result of such diplomatic desisions ended in a quasi-naval war between the French U.S. that greatly plagued the presidency of John Adams, and made the political feud between Federalist and Democratic-Republican impossible to resolve

The arrival of Edmond Genet as French ambassador to the United States only intensified the ongoing political battle. Federalist leaders (Alexander Hamilton leading their charge) saw the arrival of Genet as a precursor to an even deeper plot to undermine the sovereignty of the new American republic. The Democratic-Republicans, who welcomed Genet with open arms, hoped that his presence would be seen as an act of good will on the part of the French government.

The Federalists disagreed. For the Democratic-Republicans to welcome an "enemy" was equivalent to seeking the destruction of the new federalist government. For men like Hamilton, Genet was only a foreshadowing of the guillotine, which would sever not only the heads of Federalist leaders, but would destroy everything the revolution had created. From this Federalist perspective, it is no wonder that President Adams would take action to suppress such an uprising. The Alien & Sedition Acts, which would come a few years later, are evidence of the hysteria that captivated and drove the Federalists to assume that their demise was just around the corner.

For the modern reader, such actions may sound completely irrational. Why would the presence of one French diplomat cause such uproar? The fact is that the politics surrounding the early American republic were not only supercharged, but were deeply rooted in decades of struggle. The American Revolution (which is much more than a simple war) had turned social structures completely upside down. It would only be natural for contemporaries of this time to carry a sense of dread and worry. These were uncertain times, and hindsight was not an option. Events such as the arrival of Genet, the Alien & Sedition Acts, and others would polarize the new nation, creating an atmosphere ripe for ambitious politicians to capitalize on.

The Legend of Paul Revere

"Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere."

These opening lines to Henry Longfellow's epic poem "Paul Revere's Ride" have been recited in classrooms across this country. In fact, most people only know of Paul Revere thanks to Longfellow’s 1860 poem (almost 100 years after the actual event). Within the historical community, Reveres infamous ride has been scrutinized for its embellished nature. As we know, much of Paul Revere's "ride" was quite different from Longfellow's dramatic portrayal.

First off, we can all rest assured that Paul Revere never shouted, "the British are coming." To have done so would have destroyed the secrecy that was needed for the mission. We can also be certain that Paul Revere was not alone on April 18, 1775. After receiving his initial instructions from Dr. Joseph Warren to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of the impending doom, perhaps as many as fifty other riders were caught up in the excitement of the moment and set out to warn the countryside.

While riding across the Boston countryside, Revere was actually detained by the British, had his horse confiscated, and was forced to march back to town at gunpoint. In fact, Revere was never able to reach Adams and Hancock. Fortunately, both men were warned by other riders of the danger that was approaching, as was the militia, which prepared for the infamous Battle of Lexington and Concord.

To be certain, Revere was an important figure inside Boston's revolutionary underground. He had been entrusted by important and influential men to carry out various assignments (one of them being the stained glass portrayal of the "Boston Massacre") and was a honored member of several organizations of influence (the Masonic Lodge in Boston being the most important). Though his infamous ride may be entwined with legend and folklore, Paul Revere's involvement in the early years of Boston's revolutionary fervor are both influential and worthy of further study.

Best Historian Today on the Revolution

I was just curious to hear what you all thought. Who do you think is the best historian currently when it comes to the American Revolution? In my opinion, Gordon Wood wins hands down. Gary Nash, Joyce Appleby are close seconds.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Benedict Arnold and the Revolution

Benedict Arnold has always intersted me. Part of me feels so very sorry for the man, simply because he never received the appreciation he deserved. No doubt Arnold was the hero of Saratoga, Ticonderoga, and fought a VERY valiant campaign at Quebec. Yet despite all these great efforts, Arnold was always ignored by his contemporaries. As we all know, Arnold eventually went over with the British, and almost gave them West Point (which would have been disasterous for the Americans). In spite of his obvious collaberation with the British, George Washington still hailed him as a great hero. Benjamin Franklin even called him a second Washington.

To deny Arnold's bravery is next to impossible, but what do you all think about him as a traitor? Should we rethink Arnold's position in the history of the American Revolution, or is he where he belongs? I honestly don't know what to think. I think you can make a good argument either way. How about all of you? What is your opinion of Arnold?