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?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Revolutionary Sex Scandals

If there is one thing Americans cannot do without it is scandals. Americans seem to love them. Thanks in large part to magazines like "The National Enquirer" and "Star," Americans have a seemingly endless supply of scandals of the rich and famous.This fad, however, is nothing new in the American experiment. As part of his regular publications, Benjamin Franklin regularly included stories of scandal, sex and violence. He understood that shock value stories could sell. Just as sex scandals shock Americans today (one need not look further than Bill Clinton, Larry Craig, etc), the generation of the American Revolution was also mortified by stories of sexual deviance involving the nation's early leaders.

Take for example Alexander Hamilton. Not only did his political opponents expose his sexual liaisons with another woman, but they made sure his wife, Elizabeth, was one of the first to know about it. Hamilton was forced to own up to his misdeeds, essentially becoming America's first politician to have a sex scandal.

Benjamin Franklin is another one. During his early years, Franklin openly admitted (in his autobiography of all things) that he had frequently succumbed to the "temptations of the flesh" and had sex with, "women of lowly character." (aka prostitutes). Franklin was also less than faithful during his marriage. He was constantly implicated is sexual scandals while in England.

Of course we all know the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Though Jefferson never publicly admitted involvement with Hemmings, recent DNA from the Hemmings descendants has shown ample Jeffersonian blood, which serves as proof of guilt.

To a lesser degree, even our nation's first president, the untouchable George Washington, has been questioned regarding his private life with women. In his youth, the lovely Sally Fairfax had attracted the eye of America's first action hero. In some surviving letters, Washington expresses a longing for Sally. Later in his marriage to Martha, Washington proclaimed that some of his happiest moments were in his youth with Sally. He also lamented that fact that his marriage with Martha had resulted in, "not much fire between our sheets." I must note that there is zero conclusive proof of Washington participating in sexual affairs in his youth or during his marriage. Several historians have even commented that Washington's marriage to Martha was one of bliss. I just wanted to add the other side of the argument.

John and Abigail Adams also have their "skeletons in the closet" Though they were completely loyal to one another, and shared arguably the best marriage of any Founding Father, they both came under fire when their first child was born 8 1/2 months after their marriage. Some speculated that the couple had succored to the temptations of engagement a little too early.

You may be asking "why talk about this?" In no way do I want to portray our Founders as evil men. I believe that when one learns about their "humanity" and all the faults that come with it, the more noble their story becomes. These were not "supermen" but human beings with faults and temptations, yet they still pulled off an incredible accomplishment.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Founding Fathers in the 21st Century

All of us have heard the polular cliche: "What would our Founding Fathers do or think if they could see us today?" As nostalgic as this statement may be, it also carries a lot of weight simply because we revere our founders as "holy." They mean so much to us because we are their political offspring. We long for their legacy because it helps us define who we are as "Americans" and "patriots."

Even today, the legacy of the Founding Fathers is deeply rooted in the modern American culture. George Washington's image is still found on the dollar and quarter, Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill, Amexander Hamilton of the $10. Samuel Adams is the name of a popular alcoholic beverage (which I happen to be quite fond of). It is impossible to go anywhere in our nation without seeing their legacy. In fact, I live on Jefferson Avenue!!!

My question is this: can anyone think of any other nation or people where its founders mean so much? While it is true that England, France, Spain, Russia, China, etc have longer and richer histories than does the United States, none of those nations revere their founders as much as we do. This may be due to the fact that our founders are relatively modern in world history. One would have to go a long way back to uncover the history of England or France's founders, and even then, the nations of Europe have so many different eras where a "founding" occurred.

In America this is not the case. We know exactly when our nation's founding took place. Though we may argue specifics, nobody can argue the overall theme 0f when and how our nation was founded. It is for this very reason that our Founding Fathers have become so endeared and important to us. They are special not only for leading the most important and successful revolution in world history, but also because they are so near to us. They are so very accessable. A stoll down Washington D.C. or Boston is sufficient evidence of this fact.

Dueling: A Sport of "Honor"

If you were to ask any average American about what terms such as "honor" or "gentleman" meant, chances are they would give you a definition that is far different from the revolutionary era. Our 21st century social structures are incapable of recreating the world of America's conception. For the founding generation, words like "gentleman" and "honor" were deeply woven into the social fabric of that era. When we think about the practice known as dueling, most of us in the modern world shutter at the apparent stupidity and insanity that would be required to participate in such a practice. For colonial America, however, opinions were quite different.

To understand dueling, we must understand what the revolutionary generation (not that dueling was limited exclusively to this time period) understood about its society. First off, to be a "gentleman" meant much more than good manners. It was the social standing of an inherently "superior" individual. Gentlemen were educated, sophisticated, and brave. They worked tirelessly at cultivating the highest of social graces. Being a gentleman was almost like being a colonial version of a knight of the medieval ages. It was an obsession that infected the entire upper class in colonial society. As Gordon Wood put it, to be a gentleman meant “having leisure in an era of labor, being educated in a time of semi-illiteracy, and above all else, defending one’s honor.” Defending one's honor was at the core of dueling. For example, the most famous duel (that of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton) was due to the fact that Hamilton had undermined Burr's campaign to become Governor of New York, while Burr attempted to brand Hamilton as a wannabe British noble. The feud lasted for months. At the conclusion, Burr was defeated in his political bid for New York, while much of Hamilton's reputation had been damaged. To settle their grievances, both men agreed to a duel

In reality, the overwhelming majority of duels ended without incident. First off, the weapons of the era were terribly inaccurate. It was almost impossible to get an accurate shot off. The most important reason why duels rarely ended in tragedy was because most participants purposely missed or never fired. This was because honor, not death, was at stake. The mere attendance of both participants at a duel served to demonstrate how "honorable" the individual truly was. In essence, by proving brave enough to appear at one's duel was sufficient evidence of the person's "gentleman" qualities. This was often enough to end the feud between parties.

This does not mean that dueling never ended in death. As we all know, America's first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, lost his life for participating in a duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton's oldest son was also killed in a duel five years prior to his father's death. Usually those responsible for killing another in a duel had their reputations tarnished. They were rarely seen as "gentleman" of "honor." Just look at Aaron Burr. Killing Hamilton was the worst thing he could have ever done for his reputation. In fact, he lamented it for the rest of his life.

In conclusion, let us not forget the social aspects that went into dueling. Instead of seeing it as a barbarous practice we must recognize its influence on a society that was literally obsessed with honor.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Patriot: Too Harsh on the British?

The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, is one of the only movies made concerning the American Revolution. Of the few that have been made, The Patriot certainly stands as one of the best. However, one of the criticisms made against The Patriot is that it paints the British in an unfair light. (That kind of puts it mildly, in fact).

The villain of The Patriot is British Colonel Tavington, a fictional character based on the infamous Banastre Tarleton. Tavington is played by Jason Isaacs. Tarleton was indeed ruthless, and was known for a few battlefield atrocities. But did he burn women and children in locked church buildings? That's taking "ruthless" a wee-bit far.

What do YOU think? Was The Patriot unfair to the British?

Finding the Lost Tribes of Israel

Thomas Jefferson's decision to buy the Louisianna Puchase should be considered one of the greatest executive decisions of all-time. Not only did it give the infant U.S. a massive new chunk of land, but it animated the inaginations of everyone. In preparation for the Lewis and Clark expedition, Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis exchanged a number of letters listing their assumptions about what laid before them. In several of these Letters, Thomas Jefferson shows just how stubborn Virginians could be. He insisted that a water passage existed somewhere on the continent that connected the Atlantic to the Pacific (even though previous expeditions and scores of Indians had stated otherwise for over 100 years). Jefferson and Lewis also shared another assumption. They sincerely believed that in the far western parts of the Continent the 10 lost tribes of Israel were "hidden" or "lost" and that they would be able to find them. As strange of a notion as this may sound today, it is worth noting that Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortes, John Smith and others believed the same thing about the New World.

I think it is interesting just how long such beliefs permeated the "New World" and its people. Clearly this serves as evidence that the ideas of the Enlightenment had changed perspective is such a way that romantic ideas were deeply embraced. Unfortunately for Lewis and Jefferson, the trek turned up no sign of any "white skinned Indian Israelites." Despite such a personal disappointment for both Jefferson and Lewis, the voyage is still a remarkable part of American history and a wonderful legacy to the American revolutionary ideas.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Long Term Legacy of the Jay Treaty

During Washington's two terms as president, nearly every American politician and citizen saw him as the only person capable of keeping the nation together during its infancy. In fact, many historians give Washington credit for preventing the destruction of the union. The early years of the American republic were extremely fragile, and most people didn't think the nation would last very long. It was Washington that acted as the glue that kept all rival fations intact and added legitimacy to the new Constitutional government. As one historian put it, Washington was "the palpable reality that clothed the revolutionary rhapsidies in flesh and blood...America's one and only indispensable character...America's Zeus, Moses and Cincinnatus all rolled into one."

Despite all of these wonderful accomplisments as president, Washington did not remain untouchable to scandal and smear tactics. During his second term, Washington sent U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Jay, to England to draft a treaty that would give economic preference to England over France. To many American politicians (Jefferson and Madison amongst them) this was seen as a dirty conspiracy, designed to align American economic interests with its former nemesis. In the minds of Jefferson and others, how could the president do such a thing? It was seen as a slap in the face to all the revolution stood for, not to mention a huge insult to the French, whose aid was essential during the war.

If we see the Jay treaty from the eyes of its contemporaries, it is easy to see why it would cause such a stir. In hindsight, however, it is easy to see the Jay Treaty as an engenious economic move that allowed America to prosper. As one biographer of George Washington put it, "The Jay Treaty essentially bet on England, instead of France, as the economic superpower of the upcoming century, which proved prophetic."

Despite all the controversy and bad press that the Jay Treaty caused for Washington, it may also go down as one of his finest moments. One can only imagine how difficult it would have been to overcome the massive economic crisis that plagued early America without an economic allegiance with England.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Thomas Fleming's New Book and the Revolution's Conclusion

In his new book, "The Perils of Peace" Thomas Fleming brings up an interesting and disputed point: when did the American Revolution end? I think Fleming gives ample evidence to suggest that the Battle of Yorktown is a poor moment to conclude the Revolution (which is obvious to almost anyone). Washington's struggle to keep his army intact, the constant fighting between states, and the huge war debt were massive obstacles that concerned nearly everyone. During this time, most people were unsure if the "American experiment" would last another year, while others were suggesting a reconciliation with Great Britain.

So when should we conclude the revolution? History textbooks suggest that the Constitutional Convention is the obvious last chapter in the American revolutionary story. I, however, refuse to agree. The Constitutional Convention only established a new set of rules that still needed to be ratified and legitimized. Many colonial citizens refused to accept the new Constitution, believing it to be a carbon copy of Britain's "tyrranical" rule. Clearly the Washington presidency (which added legitimacy to the new government) was desperately needed as was the Jefferson Presidency that solidified republican principles. The Market Revolution of the early 19th century, along with the Second Great Awakening also made dramatic impacts on the infant American experiment.

So when did the Revolution end? You tell me.

I LOVE Joyce Appleby

It is wonderful to see that a women author has made such a profund impact on the study of early American history. As with any field of historical study, the vast majority of research has been done by men, which is not to say that they do a bad job. In fact, my favorite historian is a man. What is so wonderful about Joyce Appleby (and women like her) is that they have made it easier for other women to contribute to history. We are already seeing a trand towards women's history (something greatly neglected). As half of a given polulation, it is imperitive that we keep this trend up if we hope to gain a better historical perspective of any time period.

Dec. of Independence: Overrated?

As horrible as the title of this blog probably sounds, it is important for us all to remember that the Declaration of Independence (as a document) was seen in a very different light by its contemporaries than it is today. During the Second Continental Congress, while delegates were debating the issue of independence, a committe was created to draft the document. Several senior members (including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin) did not want the chore of drafting the declaration, so the task fell to the youngest member: Thomas Jefferson.

I find it interesting how much the image of the Declaration of Independence has changed over the years. Today we see the declaration (justifyably so) with awe and reverence. This simply wasn't the case during the colonial years. Attached is a great video that Brad sent me that I believes illistrates how awe inspiring the declaration has become in modern times: