The Messy Election … of 1876

24 Nov
Cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted the Compromise of 1877 as a “truce, not a compromise.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted the Compromise of 1877 as a “truce, not a compromise.” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

Between now and the inauguration of the next president, we may hear a lot of references to the election and compromise of 1876–77. Though that messy race is often cited as a distant precedent for a post-vote battle for electoral votes, no contest is more relevant or urgent today.

So begins historian Jon Grinspan’s concise account of the presidential election of 1876. You may read his entire post at the American Historical Association’s Perspectives Daily site here.

Alexandria, its ancient library, and losing knowledge

24 Nov
A 19th century illustration of the burning of the Library of Alexandria.
A 19th century illustration of the burning of the Library of Alexandria.
 Heritage Images/Getty Images

The opening episode of Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, first shown in 1980, lamented the most famous burning of books in history—the conflagration that destroyed the Library of Alexandria. “If I could travel back into time,” Sagan told his viewers, it would be to the Library of Alexandria, because “all the knowledge in the ancient world was within those marble walls.” The destruction of the library was, he said, a warning to us 1,600 years later: “we must never let it happen again.”

Sagan stood in a line of writers who, for the last two or three hundred years, have made the word Alexandria conjure up not a place—a city in Egypt—but an image of a burning library. The term Alexandria has become shorthand for the triumph of ignorance over the very essence of civilization. From the French Revolution, through the early history of the United States of America, from the First World War to the conflicts in the Balkans in the late 20th century, the word Alexandria has been a reference point for the subsequent destruction of libraries and archives. The greatest library ever assembled by the great civilizations of the ancient world—containing a vast ocean of knowledge now lost to us forever—was incinerated on a great pyre of papyrus.

The story of Alexandria is a myth—in fact a collection of myths and legends, sometimes competing with each other—to which the popular imagination continues to cling. The idea of a truly universal library, a single place where the entire knowledge of the world was stored, has inspired writers as well as librarians throughout history. Our knowledge of the real ancient Library of Alexandria is to say the least patchy, the primary sources being few, and mostly repeating other sources, now lost, or too distant to be able to be sure of. If we are going to heed Sagan’s warning, however, we must be sure of the true reason for the library’s demise.

There were in fact two libraries in ancient Alexandria, The Mouseion and the Serapeum, or the Inner and Outer Libraries. One of our sources about the Alexandrian Library is the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who, in his History (written around AD 380-390) also brings together the two key facts: that there was a massive library, and that it was destroyed.

But while the fact that the library failed to exist beyond the classical period is unquestioned, exactly why is less clear.

So begins historian Richard Ovenden’s concise consideration of the destruction of the famous ancient library of Alexandria. You may read his entire Time story here.

Righting a Wrong: The Return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo

10 Nov

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

Early 1960s map from proposed legislation granting the land transfer; the yellow area represents the Pueblos’ land prior to the transfer, while the green and red areas combined represent the added 50,000 acres.

The year was 1903, and the West was still slowly being parceled, packaged, and settled. In November, the Secretary of Agriculture requested that the Secretary of Interior temporarily withdraw a swath of forest in the Territory of New Mexico for a forest reserve—much to the dismay of the Taos Pueblo, who had lived in the area for thousands of years and made treks into that very forest for religious ceremonies. Within a month, the Secretary of Interior complied.

So begins NARA Archivist Cody White’s detailing of the loss and regaining of a particular sacred place of the Taos Pueblo. You may read the entire Text Message post here.

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Brevet Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong’s Civil War

20 Oct
Gen. Samuel C. Armstrong (NAID 167250430).

At Benedict, Maryland, in command of U.S. Colored Troops, on December 17, 1863, Union Army Lt. Col. Samuel Chapman Armstrong wrote, “we are fighting for humanity and freedom, the South for barbarism and slavery.”[1] Just three years earlier he had been a college student in the Kingdom of Hawaii and in 1862, before beginning his military service, he was a senior at Williams College. His story, particularly regarding what he was fighting for in his adopted country and his evolving views regarding African Americans, is quite interesting and well worth telling.

So begins NARA Archivist Greg Bradsher’s fascinating account of S.C. Armstrong. You may read his entire Text Message post here.

President Wilson and the 1918 Infuenza

3 Oct
Woodrow Wilson at Paris Peace Conference in January 1919
Woodrow Wilson, seen here at the start of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, never publicly acknowledged the pandemic’s toll on his country.
(Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide—including some 675,000 Americans—in just 15 months. But Woodrow Wilson’s White House largely ignored the global health crisis, focusing instead on the Great War enveloping Europe and offering “no leadership or guidance of any kind,” as historian John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, recently told Time’s Melissa August.

“Wilson wanted the focus to remain on the war effort,” Barry explained. “Anything negative was viewed as hurting morale.”

So begins Meilan Solly’s historical piece. You may read her entire Smithsonian story here.

An Illuminati Conspiracy Theory Captured American Imaginations in the Nation’s Earliest Days—And Offers a Lesson for Now

25 Sep
circa 1795: Reverend Timothy Dwight IV (1752 - 1817)
circa 1795: Reverend Timothy Dwight IV (1752 – 1817)
 Getty Images

In the final weeks before the 2020 election, the outsize role of conspiracy theories in American politics has become unmistakable. For some Trump supporters in particular, campaign-season news is filtered through the powerful idea that hidden forces are at work, that the “deep state”—a supposed secret, shadowy and sinister group of leftist politicians, government bureaucrats, Chinese scientists, journalists, academics and intellectuals—is seeking to destroy American values. Seen through that lens, COVID-19, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, is a “hoax”; some even believe that Anthony Fauci is a “deep state doctor.”

But while the particulars of these theories may be new, the dynamics are not. In fact, they go all the way back to America’s earliest years: In the late 1790s, Jedidiah Morse, the congregational minister in Charlestown, Mass., and a well-known author of geography textbooks, drew national attention by suggesting that a secret organization called the Bavarian Illuminati was at work “to root out and abolish Christianity, and overturn all civil government.” Today, such an idea sounds both eerily familiar and like a relic of a less sophisticated time—but the lessons of that episode are decidedly relevant.

So begins my friend historian John Fea’s concise piece on Christians, Federalists, and the Bavarian Illuminati. You may read his entire Time story here.

Considering the candidates and campaign context of 1920 in light of 2020

21 Sep
Image may contain Funeral Human Person Crowd Clothing and Apparel
Republican Warren G. Harding spoke to voters from his front porch in Ohio.
Photograph from A.P.

Here in stately, spacious Kalorama, a Washington, D.C., neighborhood less familiar and storied than nearby Georgetown, politics makes strange neighbors. Over on Tracy Place, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump occupy a large, charmless house whose chief selling point, one suspects, was its fuck-you proximity to the post-Presidential residence of Barack and Michelle Obama, several houses away, on Belmont Road.

A short walk from either takes you to 2340 S Street, into which Mr. and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson moved after leaving the White House, in March, 1921. Wilson’s successor, Ohio’s Senator Warren G. Harding, and his wife, Florence, were packing up their house a few blocks away, at 2314 Wyoming. Harding was a serious poker player, and today his old house is occupied by the Ambassador of gambling-friendly Monaco. The Wilson House, a small museum that is Kalorama’s chief tourist attraction, has been closed during the covid-19 pandemic. With awareness of Wilson’s racism cancelling his once-good name, someone has placed a Black Lives Matter sign, looking hasty and apologetic, against a small pane of glass near the front door.

The last four of Wilson’s eight years in the White House were an epic drama. Reëlected in 1916 on an implied promise of nonintervention (“He kept us out of war”), he soon became the Commander-in-Chief of an American military victory and, on the streets of Europe, the rhapsodically received oracle of a permanent peace that would be sustained by a League of Nations. Crushed by his own country’s resistance to this vision, he suffered a stroke in 1919 after barnstorming the U.S. in support of the League. The following year, he was too infirm to fulfill his hopes of bucking the two-term tradition and running for a third.

When considered against the electoral circumstances that exchanged Wilson, a Democrat, for Harding, a Republican, some of the tumults of 2020 appear to be a centennial reiteration, or inversion, of the calamities and longings of the 1920 campaign. Then the country—recently riven by disease, inflamed with racial violence and anxious about immigration, torn between isolation and globalism—yearned for what the winning candidate somewhat malapropically promised would be a return to “normalcy.” Early in 2020, the term remained useful to supporters of Joe Biden, with its suggestion of Presidential behavior once more within the pale. The word’s nostalgic tenor soon enough made it anathema to left-wing Democrats, and the cyclonic circumstances of the past six months may have made it feel obsolete to Biden himself, but it is still what he is talking about when he calls for removing Donald Trump: “Will we rid ourselves of this toxin? Or will we make it a permanent part of our national character?” In terms of the Presidential decency on which so much depends, there is nowhere to go but backward.

So begins Thomas Mallon’s engaging reconsideration of the 1920 presidential selection and campaign. You may read his entire New Yorker piece here.

Some historical perspective on the USPS

22 Aug
An early instance (circa 1910) of a Rural Free Delivery carrier using an automobile to reach the addresses on his far-flung route.

From 1753 to 1774, as he oversaw Britain’s colonial mail service, Benjamin Franklin improved a primitive courier system connecting the 13 fragmented colonies into a more efficient organization that sped deliveries between Philadelphia and New York City to a mere 33 hours. Franklin’s travels along the post roads would inspire his revolutionary vision for how a new nation could thrive independent of Britain. But not even he imagined the pivotal role that the post would play in creating the Republic.

So begins Winifred Gallagher’s concise history of the USPS. You may read her entire Smithsonian post here.

Acoma Pueblo: Unraveling the mystery of a stolen ceremonial shield

1 Aug

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

For most of a century, before the shield went missing, it lived in the Pueblo of Acoma in west-central New Mexico. Acoma is one of the state’s 19 pueblo tribes, with fewer than 5,000 members, half of whom live across four communities on the reservation. The oldest portion sits atop a mesa, which is believed to be one of the oldest continually inhabited sites on the continent — since at least 1100 A.D. by Western measures. It is known outside the tribe as Sky City, and it’s an important part of Acoma’s economy, drawing visitors year-round for its commanding appearance. It’s composed of adobe structures that crowd a risen plane, as if a pillar of earth had shot 367 feet into the air and brought the community with it. The shield lived in a family’s three-story home with six other shields, all tended to by a traditional cultural leader…

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1900 and 2020; Boxer Rebellion and Pandemic

28 Jul

Wikimedia Commons

Ah! The Siege of Pekin! What oceans of ink! What acres of copying ribbon have been expended by reason of you!

Edwin L. Sabin, “The Siege of Pekin,” Puck, February 6, 1901

People of many nationalities were living in confinement. As weeks of uncertainty passed, they recorded their experiences. They did this to pass the time and for posterity’s sake. For they had a sense that this year—a Metal Rat Year according to the Chinese numerological scheme that pairs each year with one of the animals of the Zodiac and one of the five natural elements—would be remembered as being of historical significance. Some felt that the crisis they were living through was completely novel. Others insisted it was a repetition with variations on an event that had occurred decades before. It was clear early on that many books would be written about this headline-grabbing crisis, and the first instant history of it appeared while the confinement was still underway.

No, I am not thinking about the current Metal Rat Year, 2020, but an earlier one that fell in the same place in the 60-year cycles so important to traditional Chinese numerology. I have in mind the 1900 crisis that began, not with the spread of a virus, but with an uprising by anti-Christian militants who referred to themselves as the “Righteous and Harmonious Militia” or the “Fists of Righteous Harmony” and whom Westerners dubbed the “Boxers.” Unlike the current pandemic, this crisis had international dimensions but played itself out exclusively in China. The many nationalities living in confinement included diplomats and other foreigners trapped in two sieges that year: the still-famous 55-day siege of Beijing and a less frequently remembered shorter one of nearby Tianjin.

So begins historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s fascinating reflections on experiencing confinement in 1900 and in 2020. You may read his entire American Scholar piece here.

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