Monday, March 31, 2008

Review of John Adams: Episode #4

Here is yet another installment in the saga that is John Adams. After last week's lackluster episode, which fell dramatically short of the excitement exhibited in episodes #1 & #2, I was hoping and praying that the series would return to its roots. Though episode #4 (entitled "Reunion") was still somewhat slow and even a little boring, I have to give kudos to HBO for bringing a personal element of the Adams Family to life. Regardless of all the letters between the couple, no historian could portray the longing and affection that was shared between John and Abigail Adams. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney's performances in this regard were outstanding (in my opinion). Their ability to recreate the reunion of the couple was very impressive.

I was also intrigued by how the series portrayed the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the Adams Family. Again, I think HBO did an excellent job in this regard. John and Abigail's trip to Britain was also very well-done.

As I have stated so many times, my main problem with this whole miniseries has been the fact that it moves far too quickly, and as a result, too much history is omitted in the process. I wish that HBO would have focused on a particular part of the Adams story instead of skimming the historical surface of his life. I also found myself somewhat disappointed with the depiction of George Washington's inauguration. Don't get me wrong, it was very powerful, but I wish that the scene would have been better developed. I felt like it was simply thrown together. Again, it must be that the history is moving way too fast. With all that said, however, I must admit that I am thoroughly enjoying HBO's production. Special kudos to Laura Linney in her portrayal of Abigail Adams. I think she has been spot on throughout the film.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Founders Religion in Modern Politics: Why Conservatives and Liberals Get it so Very Wrong

Will all of the political talk about Obama's religion, along with the role of faith in the halls of government that seems to be infesting the "blogosphere," I thought it might be fun to engage in a discussion about how the religion of the Founding Fathers has become a political platform of sorts. No matter where you turn these days, it is virtually impossible to avoid the onslaught of Democrat and Republican politics. Both parties have invested a great deal of assets in this year's election in an effort to ensure their party's triumph. Political rhetoric seems to saturate the airwaves with promises of reform and change coming from the rival political camps.

Of all the arguments that seem to complicate this year's election, religion is at or near the top. Whether it comes in the form of Mitt Romney's Mormonism, Mike Huckabee's Evangelical beliefs, or allegations of Barack Obama's ties to Islam and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the religion of our candidates has taken center stage. To further complicate this messy conglomeration of religious fervor, both the Democrats and Republicans have chosen to passionately invoke the memory of our Founding Fathers to bolster support for their respective causes. From Mike Huckabee's assertion that the majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were clergymen, to Barack Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech, this season's crop of presidential hopefuls have fully embraced the time-honored tradition of "piggybacking" the memory of the Founding Fathers with their individualistic political agendas.

This is, of course, nothing new to the world of politics. Over the centuries virtually every politician has appealed to the legacy of the Founding Fathers to rally support. What has changed, however, is the fanatical desire to polarize the religious sentiments of the Founding Fathers. These extremist views between the secularism of most liberals and the Christian zeal of most conservatives has created opposing doctrines on how religion influenced America's founding. As Steven Waldman point out in his new book Founding Faith:

In battles over prayer in school, courtroom displays of the Ten Commandments, and other emotional issues, both sides follow a well-worn script: The "religious" side wants less separation of church and state, and the "secularists" want more...For starters, many conservatives believe that if they can show that the Founding Fathers were very religious, they thereby also prove that the Founders abhorred separation of church and state...Some liberals, meanwhile, feel the need to prove the Founders were irreligious or secular and therefore, of course, in favor of separation...But in the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, BOTH SIDES DISTORT HISTORY...In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty.

Waldman's bold statements are virtually echoed by those of author John Meacham, who writes in his book American Gospel the following:

Both sides feel they are fighting for the survival of what's best for America: liberals for openness and expanding rights, conservatives for a God-fearing, morally coherent culture...The conservative right's contention that we are a "Christian nation" that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument...the secularist arrogance that religion played no role in America's founding is equally ridiculous.

So where does this leave us? Despite all of the "historical" arguments of the Democrats and Republicans, we can conclude three truths about the role of religion in the lives of the Founding Fathers, and its influence on America's founding:

1.) The Founding Fathers were religious individuals, in the sense that they believed in a "divine Providence," which oversaw and assisted in the efforts of mankind. Very few can or should be classified as Atheist. In one form or another, the majority believed in a higher power.

2.) The "Major" Founders (Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Madison, Adams, Hamilton) had a strong distrust of organized religion. The Founders were more than aware of the religious atrocities that had occurred in the colonies (the Salem Witch Trials were still fresh in the minds of almost everyone). The ideology and doctrine of the Enlightenment, though not opposed to religion, did convince many within colonial society that an individual did not need organized religion to commune with deity.

3.) The United States of America was NOT created as a CHRISTIAN nation. Though this is often an offensive statement to many Christians, I would remind them that America's greatness comes from its liberties and diversity. We accept and embrace ALL religions, not just Christianity. Though the Founders embraced Christian ideals, this does not suggest that they created a Christian nation. As John Adams himself stated, "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."

Though this argument is likely to continue for many years to come, perhaps some sense of it could be made by merely taking a trip to Washington D.C. There you will find the Washington Monument (built in the style of the Egyptian Obelisk). Egypt, as we all know was hardly a Christian nation. Then there is the United States Supreme Court building, which is build after the manner of the Greek Parthenon (Greece, as we all know, was a deeply pagan society at the time of the Parthenon). The Supreme Court building is also adorned with an elegant statue of Moses (which, of course, has angered many secularists). Perhaps the secularists should give the statue a further examination, for they will find that Moses is accompanied by a statue of Confucius (the great Chinese philosopher) and Solon (the great Athenian poet, statesman and leader in early Greece). Inside the Supreme Court building you are also likely to see the pagan statues of Britannia and Mars. Again, the Founding Fathers sought to create a nation where we would embrace and accept ALL beliefs.

This "Temple of Justice" as it was called, has become a symbol of America's religious diversity, which is one of its greatest strengths. It would do both the conservatives and liberals a great deal of good to remember these truths before making their partisan claims. After all, only damage can come from distorting history to fit one's agenda. As John Meacham states, "If totalitarianism was the great problem of the twentieth century, then extremism is, so far, the great problem of the twenty-first."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Informal Overview of Joyce Appleby's Recollections of the Early Republic

Since I currently have no major reading assignments in any of my classes, I have enjoyed the freedom of being able to read books of my own choosing (which is a rarity at the graduate level). Anyway one of the books that I just finished is an excellent mix of both primary and secondary source material on the early American republic. Joyce Appleby's Recollections of the Early Republic uses some of the best material available to demonstrate the convoluted nature of the early republic, not to mention the diverse opinions of its participants. Since the majority of the book consists of first hand accounts from the time period, the reader gets a personal view and not just a historical analysis.

The thing that struck me most about this book is the fact that so many people in early America, from diverse backgrounds, had many different views of the American Revolution. There was hardly a consensus amongst the people. The book gives a voice to so many of the traditional subalterns that are ignored in early American historiography.

For anyone that has succumbed to the delusion that the American Revolution was a unified movement, I would strongly recommend this book. The words of the actual people that lived the revolution will change your mind.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Washington Orders Inoculation

One of the most stirring scenes in HBO's new miniseries John Adams is the inoculation of Abigail and her children. Instead of today's modern inoculation methods (which still cause many to squirm and even pass out), colonial inoculation was much more barbaric. The process involved the cutting of the flesh accompanied by the introduction of the smallpox virus. As can be imagined, many within the colonial community saw inoculation as an insane method of treatment. There were even debates amongst medical practitioners as to its effectiveness.

What most people don't know when it comes to inoculation during this time period is that General George Washington actually ordered the soldiers of the Continental Army to be inoculated. Washington was a strong supporter of inoculation, believing that the medical procedure would greatly reduce the chances of infection. Though the procedure had many skeptics, Washington firmly believed that the benefits of inoculation far outweighed the risks. In fact, Washington became so paranoid about the spread of smallpox during the early years of the war that he literally became obsessed with inoculating the troops. During the seige of Boston, Washington's concern about the spread of smallpox caused him to issue an order stating that no soldier could enter the city unless he had been infected with smallpox in the past.

Washington's experience with smallpox during his youth was probably the primary determining factor in shaping his opinion on inoculation. During a trip to the Caribbean, Washington was infected with smallpox. In fact, Washington carried a few pockmark scars on his face to remind him of this nearly fatal encounter. His experiences during the French & Indian War had also confirmed to Washington that inoculation was essential for any army. During the war, Washington witnessed several British raids that were unsuccessful, due to the depleted manpower of the British Army.

In his highly acclaimed biography His Excellency, historian Joseph Ellis makes the claim that Washington's decision to inoculate the Continental Army was one of his finest moments:

Washington understood the ravaging implications of a smallpox epidemic within the congested conditions of the encampment, and he regularly quarantined patients that were infected with the virus...And although many educated Americans opposed inoculation, believing that it actually spread the disease, Washington strongly supported it...When historians debate Washington's most consequential decisions as commander in chief, they are almost always arguing about specific battles. A compelling case can be made that his swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career.
In today's modern world we enjoy the benefits of understanding the scientific advancements of modern medicine. In today's world the decision to be inoculated is a "no-brainer" of sorts because of our understanding of infectious diseases. For colonial Americans, however, this was very much a roll of the dice. Fortunately for the Continental Army, Washington was brave enough to take the gamble.

My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams

Now that the lives of Abigail and John Adams are all the rave on the web, I thought I might mention a book that I read a while back. It is a compilation of the correspondence between John & Abigail Adams, which is edited by historians Joseph Ellis and Margaret Hogan. The book gives some wonderful insight into the personal life of John and Abigail Adams. Their marriage is without question the most publicized and well-known of all the Founding Fathers.

Though a little mundane in parts, I found this book to be a wonderful fountain of information on the Adams Family. Having the insight and commentary of Ellis and Hogan was also very advantageous. Sometimes it is hard to put into context what John and Abigail are talking about, and Ellis is extremely helpful in this regard.

In their critique of this book, the New York Times Book Review had this to say:

From John’s salutation in the first letter — “Miss Adorable” — to the epilogue and his final signature in a letter to his son John Quincy about Abigail’s death — “your Aged and Afflicted Father” — the Adamses’ correspondence gives modern Americans an extraordinarily personal view of our country’s founding. Intermingled with comments on the great events of the day — the Battle of Bunker Hill, the vote for independence, the inauguration of Washington as president — are discussions of daily life, stories of neighbors and relatives, complaints about the high cost of living and laments over such family tragedies as a stillborn daughter and the deaths of parents. Their courtship letters are especially delightful. A few months before their marriage John playfully addressed to Abigail a “Catalogue of your Faults” that included such flaws as neglecting card-playing, being too modest and spending too much time “Reading, Writing and Thinking.” Abigail’s response adopted the same jocular tone: “I was so hardned as to read over most of my Faults with as much pleasure, as an other person would have read their perfections.” Amusingly, a series of letters details a mix-up in September 1776 when some prized tea that John dispatched from Philadelphia to Abigail was misdirected to Samuel Adams’s wife, who then proudly invited Abigail to drink “a very fine dish of Green Tea” she thought had been sent by her “Sweet Heart.” (Abigail ended up with only “about half” the tea, for it had been “very freely used” before the error was corrected.)

Abigail and John wrote unreservedly to each other, despite knowing that their correspondence might be intercepted and read by unfriendly eyes — as indeed some of it was (one such letter, published in 1775 in a loyalist newspaper, is included in this collection). Upon learning that his former friend Jefferson intended to resign as secretary of state in late 1793, John observed, “Instead of being the ardent pursuer of science that some think him, I know he is indolent, and his soul is prisoned with Ambition.” Reporting on Jefferson’s departure from Philadelphia a few days later, he told Abigail, “good riddance of bad ware.” Three years later, Abigail was somewhat more positive: “Tho wrong in Politicks, tho formerly an advocate for Tom Pains Rights of Man and tho frequently mistaken in Men and Measures, I do not think him an insincere or a corruptable Man. My Friendship for him has ever been unshaken.” But her affection for Jefferson did not extend to other Southern “real and haughty Aristocrats”; she contrasted them to the “Real and true Republicans” like her husband, expressing her hope that “their Negroes will fight our Battles.”

In addition to quotidian details, political commentary and descriptions of notable events, readers will find a variety of pithy remarks here. John’s comment on the First Continental Congress, for example, might resonate with viewers of C-Span today: “Every Man in it is a great Man — an orator, a Critick, a statesman and therefore every Man upon every Question must shew his oratory, his Criticism and his Political Abilities.” And feminists might well applaud Abigail’s praise of female rulers: “History informs us that of the few Queens who have reigned for any length of Time as absolute Sovereigns the greatest part of them have been celebrated for excellent Govenours.”

Because Joseph Ellis has been an outspoken critic of social and women’s history, he appears a peculiar choice to write the foreword, despite his many publications on the Revolutionary era. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he treats Abigail here more as her husband’s adjunct and supporter than as her own woman. Neither Ellis nor, for that matter, the editors call the reader’s attention to the ways in which Abigail boldly challenged John: how, when he complained about the poor education of America’s sons, she responded with even more vociferous criticisms of the education offered its daughters; or how, most famously, she admonished him to “Remember the Ladies” in the “New Code of Laws” the nation would have to adopt, because “all Men would be tyrants if they could.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Few More Observations of John Adams

If you are a regular reader of the numerous blogs on the history of the American Revolution, you are probably more than aware of the fact that HBO's new miniseries John Adams has been receiving an incredible amount of attention. Historians and history buffs alike have put this film under a microscope, scrutinizing every last detail. Naturally, this may deter some viewers that watch only for pure entertainment. On the other hand, historical scrutiny allows other viewers to analyze the film for historical purposes, essentially making the miniseries a learning tool.

I for one am all for scrutinizing historical films. I believe that it forces the viewer to stretch his/her understanding and knowledge of the time period. Keeping this in mind, here are a few additional observations of the John Adams miniseries:

  • Colonial American society LOVED to drink. John Hancock, for example, kept at least a gallon of rum punch at his bedside. George Washington was the largest distiller of rum in the colonies prior to the outbreak of war. Alcohol was a large part of the every day colonial experience. People drank alcohol back then in the same way that bottled water is consumed today. There is little to no depiction of this in the film.
  • The film's portrayal of political thought and ideology are limited to say the least. For example, there is absolutely no reference to Thomas Paine or to the massive impact of his book Common Sense. In the Continental Congress, John Adams is seen as an idealist instead of the pragmatic realist that he actually was. Historian Jeff Pasley said it best in his review of this film when he wrote the following:

    Like the David McCullough source material, this episode was atrocious when dealing with politics or political thought. Tom Paine and Common Sense are not even mentioned, nor is there any sense of the pressure the delegates were feeling from the political radicalism that was boiling over in the streets of Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, a source of great consternation to the real Adams. (Ordinary Americans appear only in occasional scenes of silent soldiers and disease victims, and in a nice polite crowd that hears the Declaration read at the end.) Here the speech Adams gives in reply to John Dickinson during the final independence debate comes out of nowhere and sounds more like Paine than Adams, proposing a national republic and extolling revolution in a way that would have had the most of the delegates fleeing back home or to the British if anyone one had actually said that kind of stuff on the floor of the Continental Congress. The real speech, while not recorded, seems to have been much more practical and nothing the delegates had not heard many times before.

  • The lack of any background information into the causes of the Britain/Boston feud are completely ignored in this film. As I have stated before, I realize that every film has limitations to it, and certain events must be omitted for obvious reasons. With that said, however, I believe that it is essential for the audience to have a basic understanding of events like the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, the Tea Act, the creation of the Sons of Liberty, etc.

Though this film (like any other) is replete with historical inaccuracies, I still maintain my overall opinion that this film is deserving of praise. HBO should feel proud for having gone to such lengths to recreate this all-important era in our nation's history.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Obama's "More Perfect Union" Speech

As we are all aware i'm sure, Barack Obama has encountered some recent criticizm for his choice of churches. His pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has been scrutinized for a number of comments he has made in various sermons over the years. In response to such criticizms, Barack Obama gave a very powerful speech on the ongoing race problems that have plagued our nation. I decided to post this on our website because the early parts of his speech center on the Founding Fathers and on the early roots of this nation. It contunues to amaze me when I consider the fact that our founder's legacy is still very much with us.

Obama's notion that the legacy of the American Revolution and the Constitution are "stained by this nation's original sin of slavery" has been a constant source of debate and argument in almost every corner of the historical, religious, political and public communitites of this country. It is an issue that inspired Americans over the centuries from Lincoln and Douglass, to Martin Luther King.

Whether or not you support Obama is not my concern in this posting. I simply wanted to present yet another angle to the ongoing debates that span the entire history of our nation.

Review of John Adams: Episode 3

The new HBO miniseries John Adams is now in its second week. So far, the film has been the buzz of almost every single blog and website that is dedicated to the American Revolution. It is wonderful to finally have a film on the American Revolution that the public is responding to.

Last week I gave the first two episodes ("Join or Die" and "Independence") some positive reviews. This week, however, I felt that episode #3, "Don't Tread on Me," was actually quite dreadful. This episode deals primarily with the experiences John Adams faced while in France from 1777-1781. My main problem with this episode (and I think this will be my main problem with the series overall) is that it only skims the surface of history. There is little to no "meat." Again, I understand that this is primarily the result of the limits of film making. With that said, I still found myself longing for much more from last night's episode. There was absolutely NOTHING on the war itself (again, I realize that this is a film on John Adams and not the Continental Army), which is an extremely important part of the revolutionary story. I also felt that Franklin's role in France was greatly diminished in the film. I understand the need to portray the Adams/Franklin feud, but at the same time is seemed like Franklin was often portrayed as nothing more than a lazy sex maniac, which diminishes his all-important role as America's finest diplomat.

The French were also portrayed in a somewhat negative light. Instead of depicting the French nobility as child-like and oblivious, I wish that the film would have shown the French as they were in the 18th century: as THE center of culture, sophistication and education.

Anyway, I sincerely hope that next week's episode will be more on the lines of episode #2, which I feel is the best so far.

The Diverse Minds of the Founders

As you all can tell from our blog's poll, there are some very differing opinions as to which Founding Father was the "smartest." Obviously it is impossible to measure which of the Founders possessed the highest IQ, the best ACT scores, etc. The only thing we really can do is weigh their individual achievements against one another, and then make a personal decision as to who we feel possessed the greatest intellect.

Since this recent poll has been so tight, I thought it might be interesting to briefly dive into the minds of each of these founders. By doing so, one can gain a greater appreciation for the unique contributions of each of these individuals, not to mention a greater understanding of their brilliance.

Benjamin Franklin: There can be no debate that Franklin was a man of incredible intellect. Franklin's accomplishments in printing, science and politics are second to none. With virtually no education, Franklin claimed not only the social ladder, but the academic ladder of success as well. Though often seen as a little eccentric, Franklin's intellect is often considered to be the greatest of all the Founding Fathers. Historian Gordon Wood considers Franklin to be the smartest person of his generation.

Thomas Jefferson: Jefferson is another popular choice. As the principle author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson has been hailed as the example of civic virtue and government of the people. Jefferson's contributions as President, vice President, and Secretary of State have added to his luster. Jefferson is often considered to be one of the greatest political idealists ever to live.

James Madison: As the "Father of the Constitution," Madison has gained recognition in the historical community for being the most brilliant mind in terms of his understanding of government. Madison's observations in the Federalist Papers reveal his keen understanding of why governments succeed and fail. His contributions to the development of the Constitution cannot be overstated. As one Madison biographer put it, "Madison was, and still is, the most knowledgeable advocate for republican government in all of American history."

Alexander Hamilton: Hamilton is often overlooked in this debate (though I am glad he is having such a good showing in our poll). Historian Joseph Ellis has given Hamilton his personal endorsement as the most brilliant mind of the Revolution. The mere fact that Hamilton is even remembered at all is a miracle in itself. Having been born in obscurity on a Caribbean island, Hamilton could have been completely passed by in the records of history. The fact that he was a genius, however, propelled Hamilton to greatness. Once in America, Hamilton excelled in college, passing many students of "advanced standing" in his first year. His understanding and brilliance on the battlefield also gained Hamilton recognition with General Washington. Hamilton's contributions to the Federalist Papers also reveals his deep understanding of government. Perhaps his greatest contribution were his economic plans, which literally saved America from economic demise.

Abigail Adams: I am also glad to see that Abigail is receiving some attention in our poll. Though never a political figure, Abigail's role as the wife of John Adams cannot be downplayed. As historian David McCullough points out, Abigail had better political sense than her husband, was a better judge of people, and had just as keen of a mind. Abigail's role as helpmate to her husband helped to shape and influence his contributions to the Continental Congress and as president. It can be safely said that without Abigail, John Adams may not have been the man he became.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy Colonial St. Patrick's Day

The holiday known throughout the western world as St. Patrick's Day is most commonly associated with Catholicism and Irish pride. After all, the holiday was created to commemorate the death of the Catholic Saint, Patrick, in 493.

So why is this such a popular holiday in the United States?

The origins of St. Patrick's Day in the United States date back to colonial times. Protestant Irish immigrants brought the festival over to the American colonies during the initial years of colonization. These early Irish Protestants were seeking refuge from the traditional Catholic rituals of Ireland, and therefore found refuge in the New World.

The first St. Patrick's Day celebration in America was held in 1737, in Boston. Most English colonists embraced the holiday as a Protestant day of worship (not to mention as an excuse to get drunk). In 1775, Irish-Americans celebrated St. Patrick's Day with a large number of British soldiers that had arrived to suppress the rebellion in the colonies. In New York, British soldiers celebrated St. Patrick's Day after their siege of the city was complete. In fact, many loyal colonists commemorated St. Patrick's Day as a day to celebrate Britain's "liberation" of the colonies.

As a gesture of appreciation to the many Irish soldiers of the Continental Army, General George Washington proclaimed March 17 as a holiday for the entire Army during their stay at Morristown. It was reported that this was the first holiday granted the troops in over two years.

Though the holiday is celebrated with much more gusto and extravagance today, the origins of America's St. Patrick's Day festivities are very much rooted in our colonial history. One can only wonder if a leprechaun or two helped in America's quest for independence!

Are you all wearing green today?

Thoughts on "John Adams," Round 1

After literally months of intense anticipation, the day of deliverance has finally arrived! HBO's new blockbuster miniseries "John Adams" aired for the first time last night, giving its audience a double feature of sorts, as they aired the first two parts of this seven-part miniseries.

So what did you all think? Did you find these initial two parts entertaining? Were they historically accurate in your opinion? What did you like/dislike about it?

As for myself, I realize that there were several small specifics that were not as accurate as they could have been. It is virtually impossible to get all of the small details completely accurate in any portrayal of the past, so I will not dwell on these. Besides, I am sure that many a historian of the American Revolution will be sure to point out every single one of these historical "infractions." Instead, I will focus on some generalities (both good and bad) that I observed from last night's show.

The Good Stuff:
1.) HBO did (in my opinion) an excellent job of recreating the 18th century colonial world. As one can imagine, colonial America in the 18th century was a difficult place in which to live. After all, colonial America was essentially on the fringe of established civilization. This show did a wonderful job of bringing to light those difficulties that made life hard for many colonists. The scene where Abigail Adams decides to inoculate her family is an excellent portrayal of how hard these times could be.

2.) This miniseries has also done an excellent job of portraying the American Revolution as an intense, confusing, and scary time for its participants. In today's America, the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution are often romanticized to death, which prevents us from understanding the true nature of their accomplishments. This film, however, effectively demonstrates the fact that the American Revolution was anything but certain for its participants. The portrayal of fighting and arguing in the Continental Congress helps to capture this in the film.

3.) The John/Abigail relationship is captured with incredible accuracy. HBO should feel good about how they portrayed John and Abigail's marriage in these first two parts of the miniseries. It was very well done in my opinion.

Things to be Desired:
1.) I think that starting this miniseries in 1770 was a bad idea. It omits too much of the initial conflict between Boston and Britain. There is no mention of the French & Indian War, the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, etc. These are extremely important factors that shaped the Britain/Boston feud. I understand that the film has to omit some stuff (even if this miniseries were 1000 hours long it could never capture it all), but for an American audience that is sure to be unfamiliar with this time period, a brief introduction into these events would certainly have helped.

2.) These first two parts of the miniseries move very quickly through six years of extremely important history (1770-1776). Again, I understand the need for this, but I feel that the audience loses out on so much history. There is a great deal of important information that is breezed through, recieving nothing more than a brief recognition.

3.) The role of John Adams in the early years of the American Revolution is a little overplayed. Don't get me wrong here, John Adams was a very important figure at this time. The film, however, depicts him as the principle player in the revolution in many cases. I wish that this film would have portrayed the fact that Samuel Adams and John Hancock were the main movers and shakers during the initial years of the American Revolution. Again, I understand why the focus is on Adams. After all, the miniseries carries his name. I just wish that there was a little more of a focus on the contribution of the other characters.

Again, these are just some general factors that I noticed in last night's show. Overall, this film is excellent! I found myself enthralled with the storyline from beginning to end. I cannot wait for next week! Now that we've declared independence, the series is sure to pick up steam!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Happy Birthday James Madison

On this day, in 1751, the "Father of the Constitution" was born. James Madison is often a forgotten figure of the American Revolution. His deeds are regularly shrouded by the other "giants" of the revolution, yet his contributions are undeniable. James Madison was without question the most passionate crusader for a change in government during the years of the Articles of Confederation. Thanks to Madison, the federal convention in 1789 became a bloodless coup d'etat, which led to the implementation of the Constitution. Madison was also a powerful advocate for the Bill of Rights (which he primarily authored). Historian Gordon Wood put it best when he wrote:

It is lamentable that Americans do not remember Madison as well as they should, especially when we reflect on who he was and what he achieved: The major architect of the Constitution; the father of the Bill of Rights and one of the strongest proponents of the rights of conscience and religious liberty in American history; the coauthor of The Federalist, surely the most significant work of political theory in American history; the leader and most important member of the first House of Representatives in 1789; the co founder of the Democratic-Republican Party in the 1790s; the secretary of state in Jefferson's administration; and the fourth president of the United States. All this, and still he does not have the popular standing of the other founders.

Happy Birthday James Madison!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy

After roughly eight years of bloddy warfare, the United States looked as though their dream of independence might come true after all. The American victory at Yorktown in 1781 had severely damaged England's desire for any further war, and the Fench involvement signified that the American cause for independence had propelled Britain into a virtual world war. Faced with such a predicament, the British were forced to consider a peace with their former colonies.

Before that peace could be negotiated, another two years would pass before both Britain and America sat down at the bargaining table. During this time, the Continental Congress faced a severe financial crisis, in which they were unable (or possibly not fully willing) to supply the army under Washington. Though the fighing had all but stopped, Washington was still forced to maintain the Continental Army until the final peace treaty was signed. As a result, the Continental Army suffered greatly in terms of hunger, lack of equiptment, fatigue and cold.

In response to these justifiable grievances, several officers withing the Continental Army formed an anonymous pact to overthrow the Continental Congress and extablish a new government. This coup was backed by several of Washington's most trusted men, who felt that the cause of liberty was being threatened by the politicians at home.

In the end, Washington was able to put down the rebellion, but it was far from easy. Here is an excellent article from the History Channel Website on how Washington handled the Newburgh Conspiracy, which was, in my opinion, Washington's finest hour:

When word of the letter and its call for an unsanctioned meeting of officers reached him, Washington issued a general order forbidding any unsanctioned meetings and called for a general assembly of officers for March 15. At the meeting, Washington began his speech to the officers by saying, “Gentlemen: By an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together; how inconsistent with the rules of propriety! How unmilitary! And how subversive of all order and discipline...”

Washington continued by pledging, “to exert whatever ability I am possessed of, in your favor.” He added, “Let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress.”

When he finished, Washington removed a letter from his breast pocket that he had received from a member of the Continental Congress. He hesitated for a moment as he looked down at the letter before fumbling to retrieve a pair of spectacles from his pocket. Before reading the letter, Washington, in an almost apologetic tone said, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am growing blind.” The eyes of most of his audience filled with tears. The content of the letter became irrelevant as the assembled officers realized that Washington had given as much or more in the service of the new nation as any of them. Within minutes, the officers voted unanimously to express confidence in Congress and their country.

In a letter to the Continental Congress dated March 18, 1783, Washington wrote to assure the body that the unrest of officers was over, writing, “The result of the proceedings of the grand convention of the officers, which I have the honor of enclosing to your Excellency for the inspection of Congress, will, I flatter myself, be considered as the last glorious proof of patriotism which could have been given by men who aspired to the distinction of a Patriot army; and will not only confirm their claim to the justice, but will increase their title to the gratitude of their country.”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Early Reviews for HBO's "John Adams"

The early reviews are in for HBO's highly anticipated new miniseries, "John Adams." Overall, historians, skeptics, and American movie buffs alike have given the series a resounding two thumbs up. Laura Linney has received the most praise for her portrayal of Abigail Adams. David Morse has also received very high marks for his role as George Washington. Tom Wilkinson, who plays Benjamin Franklin, has received the most criticism. Most of the negative critique centers on the fact that historians blame this film for portraying Franklin as a sober and angry man. The truth, however, is that Franklin was more coy and happy-go-lucky in his later life. The treatment of Franklin in this light has been attributed to McCullough's portrayal of Franklin in his book. After all, Franklin and Adams thought very little of each other.

Though the majority of the official reviews are still to come, the few individuals that have seen the film have a great deal to say. T.V. Guide Editor Matt Roush had this to say about HBO's portrayal of John & Abigail:

"Befitting such an enduring love story, Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are splendid as America's second First Couple. At home, when John sheds his wig and attitude, they're equals: "You do not need to quote great men to show you are one," Abigail chides him, all the while acknowledging her husband's indisputable greatness."

The Boston 1775 Blog also lists some excellent critiques from Jill Lepore of The New Yorker and Ira Stoll of the New York Sun (To read Lepore's critique click here. For Stoll's review click here).

Ladies and Gentlemen, get your popcorn ready and prepare to strap in! This weekend we begin the journey!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ellis on George Washington

I realize that I just posted an Ellis video, but I thought you all might enjoy this one in light of our "heated" debate on Lincoln v. Washington. Ellis is the author of "His Excellency," a highly praised biography on George Washington. He is a great source on the life of America's first president. My favorite quote from this video is, "Washington is the greatest hero in American history, and the truth is that even well-educated Americans know almost nothing of him." Enjoy the video!

Good ol' Fashioned American Sex Scandals

Sex scandals in government, politics and religions seem to be as American as apple pie these days. Yesterday's unveiling of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's involvement with a high-class call girl service is only the latest in a series of ongoing sexual deviance in the halls of power. We can all of course remember last June when Senator Larry Craig entered a public restroom at the Minneapolis International Airport (which happened to be a hotspot for homosexual sex) and propositioned an undercover police officer. Memories of Mark Foley propositioning young men on the Internet in 2006 are still fresh in the minds of Americans (Foley by the way happened to crusade the fight against internet predators while in Congress). And then of course there is the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton, who denied having sexual relations under oath, only to later admit to "inappropriate relations" at a later date.

Let us not forget the misdeeds of our beloved American preachers, many of whom bravely preached chastity and morality behind the pulpit, only to be caught in a web of deceit themselves. In 1986 the Pentecostal minister Jimmy Swaggart was caught having sexual relations with several of his parishioners. In 1991 Swaggart was caught again in the arms of his "loving" prostitute, Rosemary Garcia, when the couple were pulled over by a California State Trooper. Then of course there is the tragic story of one Ted Haggard, who served as president for the National Association of Evangelicals and was an outspoken critic of homosexuality. Come to find out, Mr. Haggard himself liked to indulge in discreet homosexual activities while smoking meth.

With these scandals in mind, along with the many others I neglected to mention, one may feel that the United States is heading down the slippery slope of immorality, where certain destruction awaits us around the next corner. Is our generation becoming corrupted by sexual misdeeds? How do we compare to generations past?

Have no fear fellow Americans; we are far from alone when it comes to sexual deviance. Let us travel back to the time of America's founding to uncover a few parallel examples of inappropriate sexual contact. First off, we have the hero of American economics, Alexander Hamilton, who became our nation's first Secretary of the Treasury. In the latter part of his time in the Washington Administration, Hamilton admitted to having a long-term affair with a Maria Reynolds. The affair ruined Hamilton's personal reputation, but did little to his professional life. Then there is the case of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and this nation's 3rd president. Jefferson, has long been accused of having sexual relations with one of his slaves (Sally Hemmings) and even allegedly had a child with the woman. Jefferson never said anything publicly about the charges. In the early 1990s, DNA testing on the Hemmings line revealed the strong presence of Jefferson DNA, evidence that is irrefutable to the doubter. Even the beloved Benjamin Franklin, one of America's most celebrated Founders, admitted in his autobiography to having sexual relations "with women of low character." While in England, Franklin regularly enjoyed sharing his bed with scores of prostitutes. Franklin later stated that it was a miracle that he never acquired any diseases.

There you have it! Sexual deviance is as timeless of an institution as any other in this nation. Perhaps it should pass baseball and become our national pastime. Will American politicians ever learn? If history is a gauge of the future then the answer is a resounding HELL NO!!! We are doomed to see this pathetic cycle repeat itself soon enough. The only question I have is, who’s next?

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Most Influential Books

Here is another topic that is sure to cause debate. Of all the books written on the American Revolution, what are the Top 5 most influential? I'm not asking you to give me your personal list of favorites here. Instead, I am asking you which books have had the greatest impact on the historiography of the American Revolution. For this question, you'll need to do a little research back into some of the older books that shaped our understanding of the Revolution. By the way, do not pick primary sources for this question. Focus on what has been written by historians over the years. I also think that this question will allow us to see how our perspective of the American Revolution has changed over time.

Though there are literally hundreds of books that have shaped the historiography of the American Revolution, I feel that these five are the most influential:

#5: An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States by Charles Beard. Written in 1913, Beard's work completely changed the way Americans understood the American Revolution. Written in what historians call the Progressive Era, Beard's book directly challenged the traditional view of the Founders as being men of valor. Instead, Beard suggested that the founding of the United States war primarily motivated by the economic interests of the rich. Though I do not agree with Beard's thesis, I also recognize the fact that this book became a major player in shaping the historiography of the American Revolution for over 50 years time.

#4 The Unknown American Revolution by Gary Nash.
Published in 2005, this relatively new book focuses on the impact of the American Revolution on the common citizenry. Instead of giving a detailed history of the battles, conventions, ect., Nash focuses on how the American Revolution was revolutionary for black slaves, women, indentured servants, immigrants, yeoman farmers, and others. The book is important to the historiography of the American Revolution because it provides a new angle from which to analyze the revolution's impact.

#3 The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 by Robert Middlekauff
Written and published in 1982 by Oxford University Press, this book has earned the distinction as being the source for a general synopsis of the wars, debates, rebellions, etc., that made up the American Revolution. The book was also considered cutting-edge because it gave the British perspective to the war as well, without criticizing the British for being tyrannical monsters (which most books prior to this one had done).

#2 The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 by Charles Sellers
Though the book focuses on the era immediately following the American Revolution, I include it here because it has truly revolutionized the way we understand the impact of the American Revolution on society. The Market Revolution provides a detailed view of how the market economy was introduced into the American economic landscape, dissolving the traditional system of communal subsistence. Sellers proves that without the American Revolution, these changes would have never occurred.

#1 The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon Wood
There is no doubt in my mind that Wood's work is the most important book to date in shaping the historiography of the American Revolution. In this book, Wood gives a detailed analysis of how the social structures of the colonies were completely changed due to the American Revolution, and how society's understanding of government, culture, religion, etc., were forever altered. This book is a must-read for anyone that is a fan of the American Revolution.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Joseph Ellis on Exporting Democracy

Historian Joseph Ellis expounds on the reasons that democracy cannot, and should not, be exported or "forced" on other nations and cultures. Ellis states in this video that the Founding Fathers would unanimously object to democracy being "introduced" to any other nation, because they understood that democracy has to be accepted by a people for themselves. Very interesting video. Enjoy!

Founding Faith

There seems to be a never ending stream of books and debates on the topic of religion and the Founding Fathers. You would think that after literally hundreds of books on the topic that we would be able to come to some kind of logical conclusion on the matter. I guess that the constant debating on this very important issue is indicative of just how important of a role our Founding Fathers continue to play in modern America, and how various groups (specifically religious and secular) use the Founders to justify their motivations.

Though there are literally hundreds of books on the topic, I wanted to mention one I came across the other day called Founding Faith by Steven Waldman. Waldman is a very respected editor for the website This book argues about the issue of religious freedom in America (for a more complete review of this book I recommend that you visit the Religion in American History Blog).

I mention this book here because it has already received mixed reviews from the historical community. It is another wonderful chapter in the ongoing Founding Fathers/religion debate.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Hamilton, Economics, and the Capital

The most important member of George Washington’s cabinet was arguably Alexander Hamilton. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton faced the tremendous burden of tackling the nation's debt crisis. The Revolutionary War had left the states with massive debts, and many European nations were reluctant to establish credit with American merchants. To correct the problem, Hamilton proposed that the national government should assume the debts of the states, that a national bank be established, and that all holders of war bonds/securities be paid at face value. By assuming the states debts, Hamilton was essentially doing what he felt the national government had been given power to do. As Joseph Ellis points out, "the federal government was implicitly, even covertly, assuming sovereign authority over the economics of all the states."

Opponents of Hamilton's economic plan saw it as an evil scheme to wrestle power away from the people and to secure it for the national government. Some suggested that Hamilton was doing this by shifting the balance of power from the legislative branch (Congress) to the executive branch (the Presidency). Other opponents had a different take on Hamilton's economic plan. Many saw it as a carbon copy of England, which would benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Many southern leaders interpreted the plan as "the prostration of agriculture at the feet of commerce."

There were also many in the public who lamented the fact that war bonds, which had been used to pay war veterans, were being bought up by rich speculators. These speculators were paying well below face value for the bonds, and then waiting for Hamilton's plan to go into effect. These speculators knew they stood to gain huge profits once Hamilton's plan was accepted. Critics argued that many veterans were being swindled out of their money. Congressman James Jackson called the speculators, "rapacious wolves seeking whom they may devour."

Eventually, opponents of Hamilton's plan (especially the Virginia elite) would lend their support for it, in exchange for the location of the new national capital to be located on the Potomac. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison used their political influence to sway public support in favor of Hamilton's plan. In return, the new capital of the nation was established in Virginia. Many leaders within the government felt that this compromise "gave birth to combinations, parties, intrigues, such a degree to give serious alarm to the friends of the government." Hamilton's economic plan served as one of the first hurdles for the infant nation to learn to overcome. Whether the compromise was seen as a good or bad thing, it did prove that politicians with differing opinions could find a way to come to a compromise and get things done.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Erie Canal and the "Burned-over District"

One of the largest achievements of the early 19th century is the completion of the Erie Canal. Though ignored by the federal government, Governor Henry Clinton of New York was able to gain the funding necessary to complete the project. The canal turned out to be such a huge success that the debt for the project was paid off within the first year of the canal's operation.

The Erie Canal brought a tremendous amount of wealth and commerce to the state of New York. In fact, it is because of the Erie Canal that New York earned the nickname "The Empire State."

What a lot of people don't know when it comes to the Erie Canal is that its construction helped to spark the fires of religious revival throughout the state. The area of western New York, which evangelist Charles Finney dubbed "the burned-over district," was a particular hot bet for religious fanaticism, scarcely seen in any other part of the American republic. Though the construction of the Erie Canal cannot be given full credit for this surge of religious enthusiasm, it can be credited for being one of the major factors that led to this phenomenon.

In his work The Market Revolution, historian Charles Sellers suggests that the construction of the Erie Canal brought an infusion of market capitalism that forced religions to adapt. While many of these religions embraced the Market Revolution in western New York, others fought against it. A sudden surge in the number of religious communal societies, each embracing a communistic economy and the hope of a rapidly approaching millennium, became the antithesis to the capitalist changes enveloping New York. These societies saw capitalism as an evil to be avoided. The various religious leaders that emerged from western New York at this time (Ann Lee, Charles Finney, Joseph Smith, Jonathan Edwards to name just a few) labored to protect their "flocks" from the clutches of capitalist enthusiasm, each gaining different degrees of success.

Many of the established religions (Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, Catholics to name just a few) also flooded the region with missionaries, as the expansion westward marked a change in how religions addressed the need for new converts. Other religious ideologies, such as Universalism, Unitarianism and Deism affected the way citizens understood religion.

What interests me about these movements is how they were so closely related with capitalism and the Market Revolution. As the market's influence grew, so too did the religious zeal of the various dogmas. Capitalism was seen as an evil to be combated, instead of a practice to be embraced. It is amazing how different things are today!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Articles of Confederation

On this day in 1781, the Articles of Confederation were radified, and became the governing structure of the former British colonies. The Articles gave each state, "its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right." As we all know, the Articles of Confederation were done away with only a few years later by the radification of the Constitution. As weak as the Articles of Confederation were, they still deserve the recognition of being the first governing system of the United States. Without the Articles, there is a good chance that we would have never adopted the Constitution. There can be little doubt that the Articles of Confederation played an important role in the development of our republic. I find it tragic that so many American know nothing about the Articles of Confederation. They are a national treasure that should be recognized. Click here for a link to the Articles of Confedration at the National Archives website.