Archive for the ‘American History’ Category

For most younger folks today the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel is probably best, and perhaps only, known from a popular television commercial.  When first viewing that commercial myself, as a young high school student, I remember having only a vague idea of who Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were; that vague idea coming from having read Edward Everett Hale’s The Man Without A Country in English class a year or two before.  So I knew there had been some kind of duel that involved the two men, though I had no idea of their significance to American history or why they felt the need to shoot at each other from ten paces.

Burr and Hamilton had both served in the Revolutionary War and had achieved high ranks; Burr a colonel and Hamilton a general, though the generals commission was granted long after the Revolution during what is known as the Quasi-War with France.  Both were integral in the early Republic holding important offices at various times, and mostly friendly at the start.  But the seeds of rivalry were planted in 1791 when Burr beat Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, in the race for the Senate seat from New York.  From there the animosity festered.  Hamilton saw Burr as a political opportunist and a bit of a flip-flopper, to use today’s language, and was often very critical of him in public.  Burr was in fact a bit of a schemer, or as some might see it, politically shrewd.  Either way, he didn’t much care for Hamilton’s opinion of him and they were constantly at odds.  So much so that when the Presidential election of 1800 ended in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Burr, Hamilton used as much of his influence as he could among more moderate Federalists–who  would have preferred Burr to Jefferson as President, though they were both Republicans–in the House of Representatives–which was responsible for breaking the tie–to see that Burr lost.  This might not seem like that big of a deal except for the fact that it was well known that Jefferson and Hamilton were bitter political enemies.  So strong had the feud between Hamilton and Burr become that Hamilton would prefer to see his greatest political opponent reach the presidency, than the more moderate Burr.

Burr did serve as Vice President under Jefferson, as the runner-up did at the time, but it was rumored that Jefferson would attempt to replace him in the next election in 1804.  Burr decided to run for governor of New York, but was again thwarted, again largely due to Hamilton and his allies.  During the course of the campaign a letter surfaced that had been written to Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, by a Dr. Charles D. Cooper which described “a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr” at a dinner.  According to the code of honor of the day, attacks on someone political views, even very harsh ones, were fair game, but to impugn on a man’s personal character was viewed as out of line.  Burr demanded an apology from Hamilton, or at the very least, an explanation.  Hamilton refused, claiming not to know specifically what Dr. Cooper was referring to and therefore could not offer an explanation or an apology.  Through a series of letters delivered through proxies, Hamilton and Burr continued to spar over the issue, eventually to the point where Burr demanded an apology for every negative thing Hamilton had ever said about him and Hamilton refusing because it was, basically, all true.

Finally, in an effort to regain his honor, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.  Hamilton, feeling his own honor was at stake, accepted.  Both men had fallen on hard times politically in recent years; Burr’s virtual dismissal as Vice President (though he was still the current VP in 1804) and loss in the New York gubernatorial election had damaged his reputation and ego and Hamilton had not served in public life in any real capacity for at least four years and his Federalist party was diminishing in influence.  Perhaps they both saw in the duel a chance, not only to settle old scores, but to reclaim former prestige, if not politically, then at least personally.  They agreed to meet at Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11th, 1804 to settle things once and for all.

Coming Soon:  The Duel:  Part Two


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flag1.jpgIt seems that Past Tense should perhaps change it’s name to Test Tense, as three out of the last fours posts have involved a test of some sort, and one that one wasn’t much of a post at all, just a picture.  I could say that I’m just trying to better educate the blog-reading public, and while that is partially true, it’s really just because I’m lazy.  I didn’t even come up with these tests.  But in an effort to keep this blog from completely dying, I figure lazy posting is better than no posting at all.  And so I present to you yet another test.

 This test was conducted by Intercollegiate Studies Institute and was administered to 14,000 college freshmen and seniors from 50 institutes of higher learning.  The test consisted of 60 multiple choice questions on American history, government, and economy.  The point of the test was to see which institutions did the best job of increasing the knowledge of these subjects over the course of a students time there.  Well, it also showed something else–that American college’s (and apparently high schools) are not doing a good job of teaching these things.  No school scored better than a D+, for freshmen or seniors.  These aren’t Podunk U. or Bob’s Junior College.  These are legit academic powerhouses.   Rutgers, Duke, Cal, University of Michigan, half of the Ivy League, Murray State.  Yes, Murray State!  This is bad news.

Naturally, I had to take this test for myself.  I did pretty well, though not as well as I would have liked.  I scored 49 out of 60, an 81.67%.  Most of the questions I missed were among the last ten and had to do with economics, an admitted weak spot in my arsenal.  There were some gimmee questions, but most at least made me stop and think for a second.  (There were two questions that I had answered correctly originally, but changed my answer.  Never second guess yourself.)  So I wouldn’t say it was an easy test, but certainly I would have expected most college students to get at least a C, especially seniors.  When I got my score, it also gave me the average scores people have gotten for the month and since the test has been online, September 2007.  Both of those scores were 71.5%.

So, now the challenge.  Can you beat my score.  Remember, no googling.  Post your scores and what you thought of the test in the comments.  Have at it!  Go!

For a good and pretty interesting post on teaching history to high school students (and my comments on it) check this out on Blog 4 History.

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This question was asked by my sister.  Its good to have the support of the family.  And the recognition that I am her intellectual superior, even though she’s the one in the family with a college degree.  Why else would she call me “wise one”?  Here was her question:

“Well I was just thinking this past, I mean a week ago, what is the history behind the Labor Day holiday, so could you enlighten me oh wise one??”

The Labor Day holiday in the United States dates back to the late nineteenth century.  This era in American history saw a lot of tension between working folks and industry.  Strikes and walkouts were farily commonplace as workers fought for the establishment of what they deemed to be fair labor laws and practices, whether better wages, a shorter work day, etc.  Unfortunately, due to extremism on both sides of the issue, these strikes and demonstrations often led to bloody riots and in some cases even pitched battles.  The most famous riot with lasting repercussions was the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in May of 1886.

Workers had gone on strike on May 1st to force an eight-hour workday into law and on May 3rd violence erupted when strikers attacked a replacement worker trying to cross the picket line.  The police intervened and after the ensuing scrum, four strikers were dead.  Anarchist Albert Parsons immediately began spreading the word that the police had been sent to kill the strikers at the behest of the business interests there.  The next day a large rally was held at Haymarket Square that began so peacefully that the mayor of Chicago, who had stopped to watch it, decided to walk home early.  After a while, the police moved in to disperse the crowd when someone hurled a bomb in their direction.  A riot ensued which left seven policemen and at least four workers dead.  These events are seen as instrumental to the international labor movement and are the inspiration for the May Day workers holidays celebrated around the world.  But wait, Labor Day isn’t in May in the United States.  No it is not.  Here’s why.

As early as 1882, the Knights of Labor, a prominent workers organization in the late 1800’s, began holding a parade in New York City to honor the working man, which took place in early September.  Also, for some time the Central Labor Union had been pushing Congress to establish a holiday for the worker.  Since many of the unions and working orgainizations who would have preferred May 1st for the holiday–as it is internationally–were fraught with anarchists and socialists, President Grover Cleveland stepped in to support the Knights of Labor for their date.  In 1894 the first Monday in September was designated Labor Day by the Congress.

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CincinnatusThis was question asked by my professor, not a reader.  A reader has proposed a question and I do intend to answer it soon, so stay tuned for that.  In the meantime here is the answer to the above question, which was one of my assignments.

To me the greatest Roman was Cincinnatus. Not only for what he did for Rome, but for being the inspiration and role model of a great leader that would follow over 2000 years later.

In the very early days of the Republic, Cincinnatus had served as consul, but was really just a farmer at heart. He was known for his simplicity and virute and when crisis befell Rome, the Aequi and Volscians were threatening the city, the Senate pleaded with him to accept their appointment of him as dictator to save the city. Knowing this would mean the sacrifice of his farm and the possibility of starvation for his family, he answered duty’s call. The invaders were repelled and order restored.

With legally obtained dictatorial powers, he could have relatively easily refused to relinquish them. But being the quintessential virtuous Roman, he willingly gave up power and returned to his humble farm.

Similarly, in the late 18th century, George Washington would be the unanimous choice for President of the newly created United States. Many wanted to make him the king, but he refused such a title or its powers. He reluctantly left his farm at Mt. Vernon to do what he felt was his duty to lead the country through its crucial formative years. After two terms as President, there were no limits then, he more than willingly laid aside the mantle of power to return to his beloved Mt. Vernon. Cincinnattus was greatly admired by Washington and provided the model for a virtuous Republican leader 2000 years in the future.

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Woodrow WilsonOK, this answer has been way too long in coming.  My utmost apologies.  Without further adieu, the third and final part of Josh’s question, originally posed way back it November (yikes!).

Ever since George Washington’s Farewell Address, the US had maintained a policy of mostly keeping out of European affairs, so long as they remained in Europe.  So, when the Great War broke out in 1914, it wasn’t too surprising that the United States remained on the sidelines.  For the most part.  Some Americans, feeling the call of duty, joined the Canadian armed forces and in 1916 the French deployed a fighter squadron called the Lafayette Escadrille that was composed of mostly American pilots.  But the official position of the American government was one of neutrality.  President Woodrow Wilson was an idealistic man and offered to mediate between the two sides, but neither took him up on his offer.  They had their heads full of visions of conquest and glory.

Looking back to WWI through the lens of 2007, it would appear to us a foregone conclusion that the US would eventually enter the war on the side of the Allies.  However, that is not exactly the case.  Though the earliest European settlers of America had been British, and many more British emigrated after the Revolution, the country had had a huge influx of German and Irish immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century.  The Irish have never been what you would call buddy-buddy with their British cousins, less so in the early 20th century.  Americans of German decent at that time were likely not so far removed from the Old World that they wouldn’t still have friends and relatives fighting for the Central Powers.  So, early on public opinion was not so solidly pro-British or Allies.  However, the Germans made three major mistakes that would change that.

 The first was unrestricted submarine warfare.  At the outbreak of the war, Wilson was counting on America’s neutrality to guarantee it freedom to trade with all belligerents.  The Atlantic would be an open business.  However, the British had other plans.  With their superior navy they blockaded Germany’s ports to all traffic, neutrals included.  This put quite a crimp in the free flow of trade Wilson was hoping for.  He protested to London, but there was practically very little he could do short of declaring war, which he absolutely wouldn’t.  The British and their allies, never missing a beat, were now in a position to be the near exclusive trading partners with the US.  Obviously this stuck in Germany’s craw.  They responded with unrestricted submarine attacks on merchant shipping.  In the early days of the war, submarine warfare was quite civil.  A merchant ship would be stopped, the crew removed, and then the ship sunk.  For obvious reasons, this was not having the desired affect on the British, of cutting off their food supply, as it were.  Unrestricted submarine warfare can best be described like this:  see boat, sink boat, celebrate to the swinging sounds of David Hasselhof (Germans love David Hasselhof).  OK, I made that last part up.  After a cruise liner, the Lusitania, was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915, killing 128 Americans, the British were sure Wilson would declare war.  However, he instead protested vehemently to Germany on the illegality of unrestricted submarine warfare, and the Germans ceased the practice…until 1917.  By that time, Germany was in dire straits.  With the free flow of munitions from America to Britain the Bosch were in danger of being out gunned.  It wasn’t so much that the American munitions peddlers didn’t want to sell their wares to Germany, they simply couldn’t due to the British blockade.  With the resumption of their harsh submarine tactics the Germans realized that America would stand idly by for only so long before declaring war, however they grossly miscalculated the time it would take to get enough doughboys across the pond to have an impact on the Western Front. 

A second mistake Germany made was the use of sabotage.  As we’ve noted, Germany was fairly perturbed that though the US was technically neutral and free trade with both sides, most, if not all, of its trade was with the Allies.  Another way they attempted to stifle this was through sabotage in the US itself.  Probably the largest act was on a munitions dump in New Jersey known as Black Tom.  There were about 200 incidents of German sabotage in the US during the war and the real-life spectre of German agents running around in picklehaubs along the Eastern seaboard blowing things up was enough to start to sway public opinion.

The third mistake the Germans made occurred south of the the border, our border.  British intelligence had intercepted a communique from the German Foreign Secretary Artur Zimmerman to his ambassador to Mexico in Mexico City.  Known as the Zimmerman Telegram, the note instructed the ambassador to approach the Mexican government on the possibility of a Mexican-German military alliance should the US declare war on Germany.  Germany would assist Mexico with arms and funds if they would stage an invasion of the American southwest.  Germany would also assist Mexico in reclaiming the land lost in the Mexican-American war.  Small places like Texas and California.  Tensions between Mexico and the US were already high.  The neighbor to the South was already in the midst of revolution and political instability and General John “Black Jack” Pershing had been chasing Poncho Villa back and forth across the border for months.  Despite the tension, the plan was infeasible and quixotic.  Mexico was in no position, as per the aforementioned revolutionary activity, to make war on the US and Germany could promise all the guns and money it wanted, but how were they going to get them to Mexico?  The British blockades weren’t letting anything in, and they certainly weren’t going to let anything out.  The Huns were most definitely desperately grasping at straws.

The Zimmerman Note was the last straw.  The British turned it over to the US in February of 1917 and by April Wilson had asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany to make “the world safe for democracy.”  War could no longer be avoided.  Also playing a part in Wilson’s decision was the fact that Imperial Russia was now out of the Allied camp, and indeed no longer existed.  The Bolsheviks had taken over and made peace with Germany.  Even if the Tsar still had been in power, its unlikely this would have been a sticking point for Wilson as public opinion would likely have forced him to the same conclusion.

By June of 1917 there were 14,000 US troops in Europe under the command of Pershing.  In eleven months there would be over a million.  Six months after that, on November 11th, 1918, the War to End All Wars, that began with the assassination of an Austrian nobleman (who was commissioning a symphony in C) that claimed more than 9,000,000 lives, that redrew the maps of Europe and the Middle East, that would send echos nearly 100 years into the future was over.  The document that was supposed to mark a new era for mankind, the Treaty of Versailles, would leave a devastating legacy that would lead, a mere 21 years hence, to an even greater conflict.  But that is a post for another day.

 (P.S.  Bonus points to whoever can pick out the obscure song reference in that last paragraph.)

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Presidents of the United States of AmericaNo, not these guys.  The real Presidents of the United States of America.

After the winning of the War of Independence, the Founders faced another challenge; what kind of government to form.  Suspicious of a strong executive office, for obvious reasons, the first framework of government, the Articles of the Confederation, made no provisions for such an office.  This was one of the reasons the Articles were ineffectual as a tool of government and led to their being essentially tossed in the wastebasket and a new plan of government was established in our Constitution.  Even then the suspicion of a powerful executive remained.  Patrick Henry even went so far as to say the Constitution “squints toward monarchy.”

The Constitution established the office of the President, and detailed some specifics on what the requirements of the office were–must be a citizen, at least 35 years old, resident in the US for the last 14 years, commander-in-chief, enforce the laws passed by Congress, etc.–but how the President would fulfill these duties was unclear.  George Washington did much to define the office and set precedents for those that would follow him.  As examples, Washington created a cabinet, which the Constitution makes no mention of, and he served only two terms when, at that time, there was no limit.  Every President until FDR would follow Washington’s precedent and serve only two terms.  FDR was elected to four terms, and in 1951 the Twenty-second Amendment was ratified limiting the number to two.

The President was unlike any political office.  It raised all sorts of important questions, like how do we address this guy?  Some suggestions:  His Elective Majesty, His Mightiness, His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same.  It was finally decided that simply Mr. President would suffice.  Probably the best move.

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St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day Brought to You by Hallmark than with a little organized crime.

Few characters of the 1920’s are more renowned, or infamous, as Al Capone.  Building a criminal empire on a foundation of bootlegged booze barrels, by 1929 he was one of the most powerful men in Chicago.  Capone’s Italian gang ruled the South Side of Chicago but the rival German/Irish gang of George “Bugs” Moran controlled the North Side.  Moran and Capone had been rivals for years.  Capone’s old boss Johnny Torrio had had Moran’s capo Dion O’banion gunned down in his own flower shop in 1924.  Moran took over O’banion’s rackets and though he botched an attempt on Torrio’s life, his gun misfired, it sufficiently spooked Torrio into retirement, leaving Capone in command of the South Side.  The gangland wars raged as the two mafioso vied for control of the Chicago bootlegging racket and total control of the city. Needless to say that by St. Valentines Day of 1929 no love had been lost between Capone and Moran.

Capone and henchman Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn devised a plan to murder Moran by tricking him into meeting some supposed rum runners at a parking garage to check out a shipment of bootlegged whiskey.  Seven of Moran’s men arrived at the S-M-C Cartage Company garage on Clark St on February 14, 1929.  Shortly after, five more men arrived, two dressed as Chicago police officers.  Witnesses in the neighborhood were then startled by the chatter of tommy-gun fire.  After several uneasy moments, the two “policemen” emerged with two other men with their hands in the air.  As the situation appeared under control, no one called the police.  It wasn’t until later that afternoon that a dog which had been tied to the bumper of a truck by Moran’s mechanic, alerted the neighbors that something else may be amiss.  Police finally arrived to find seven bullet ridden and bloody bodies, all facing the brick wall.  Shockingly, one of the victims was still alive and was rushed to the hospital, the authorities hoping to glean some information from him.  When attempting to question him, the only response they got was something along the lines of, “I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.”  The gangster who was shot in the back by rivals refused to give up any information about his murderers, adhering to the mafia code of silence, omerta.

What had happened here?  Why had seven members of one of Chicago’s most powerful gangs, no doubt well armed, allowed themselves to be disarmed and shot and in the back?  The answer is simple.  With Moran’s thugs waiting for the supposed shipment of booze, five of Capones men, two dressed at cops, arrived.  The North Siders, assuming this to be a routine sting operation and assuming the “officers” to be relatively harmless, willingly gave up their weapons and turned to face the wall as ordered.  Upon doing so, the three men in plain clothes emerged and machined gunned them down.  To diffuse any panic in the neighborhood, the two fake cops would leave the garage and make a show of arresting the plainclothes men and they could make a clean getaway.  Technically, this is all speculation as the only witness to survive refused to talk and the killers were never apprehended, but in all likelihood that is what occurred.

While the plan succeeded in killing seven of Moran’s men, it failed to kill the man himself.  He did not arrive on time (I suppose if you’re a gang boss you’re always on time) to the garage and when he finally did arrive, he saw the stolen police car outside and, wisely, did not go in.  Once he heard the gunfire, he fled.  The massacre did however weaken Moran and his power quickly faded.  He died in prison as a pauper in 1957.

For Capone, the aftermath was damaging as well.  He was probably at the zenith of his power at that point, but the pogrom served to increase his notoriety, not necessarily a good thing for a gangster, especially with the federal government.  Though he was never charged for the murders, he was in Florida at the time, there was little doubt, among law enforcement and the public, that he was behind it.  This was in part to Moran’s statement to a newspaper, “Only Capone kills like that!”  The federal government doubled its efforts to put Capone behind bars by whatever means it could, and he was eventually convicted of tax evasion and served seven years of an eleven year sentence, much of it on Alcatraz.  After his release he lived in Florida, his criminal empire withered from the repeal of Prohibition and his mind deteriorating from the affects of syphilis.  He died in 1947.

 Happy Valentine’s Day!

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