Don't Know Much

When Irish Eyes Were Not Smiling-The Bible Riots

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(This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on March 17, 2012)

It is the day for the “wearing of the green,” parades and an unfortunate connection between being Irish and imbibing. For the day, everybody feels “a little Irish.”

But it was not always a happy go lucky virtue to be Irish in America. Once upon a time, the Irish –and specifically Irish Catholics– were vilified by the majority in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America. The Irish were considered the dregs by “Nativist” Americans who leveled at Irish immigrants all of the insults and charges typically aimed at every hated immigrant group: they were lazy, uneducated, dirty, disease-ridden, a criminal class who stole jobs from Americans. And dangerous. The Irish were said to be plotting to overturn the U.S. government and install the Pope in a new Vatican.

One notorious chapter in the hidden history of Irish-Americans is left out of most textbook– the violently anti-Catholic, anti-Irish “Bible Riots” of 1844.

In May 1844, Philadelphia –the City of Brotherly Love– was torn apart by a series of bloody riots. Known as the “Bible Riots,” they grew out of the vicious anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment that was so widespread in 19th century America. Families were burned out of their homes. Churches were destroyed. And more than two dozen people died in one of the worst urban riots in American History.

You can read more about America’s history of intolerance –religious and otherwise– in this Smithsonian essay, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance.”

The story of the “Bible Riots” is another untold tale that I explore in my book A NATION RISING.

A Nation Rising

Don’t Know Much About® Andrew Jackson

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Imacon Color Scanner

(Revision of original post of March 15, 2014. Video created and directed by Colin Davis.)

Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, was born on March 15, 1767 on the border of both South and North Carolina (the precise location is uncertain).

Does he deserve his place on the $20 bill?

In his day and ever since, Andrew Jackson has inspired high emotions and sharp opinions. Thomas Jefferson once called him, “A dangerous man. ”

His predecessor as president, John Quincy Adams, a bitter political rival, said Jackson was,

“A barbarian who could not even write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name.”

His place and reputation as an Indian fighter began with a somewhat overlooked fight against the Creek nation led by a half-Creek, half-Scot warrior named William Weatherford, or Red Eagle following an attack on an outpost known as Fort Mims north of Mobile, Alabama. Like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, it was an event that shocked the nation. Soon, Red Eagle and his Creek warriors were at war with Andrew Jackson, the Nashville lawyer turned politician, who had no love for the British or Native Americans.

You know the name of  Andrew Jackson. But you probably don’t know the name William Weatherford. You should. He was a charismatic leader of his people who wanted freedom and to protect his land. Just like “Braveheart,” or William Wallace, of Mel Gibson fame. Only William Weatherford, or Red Eagle, wasn’t fighting a cruel King. He was at war with the United States government. And Andrew Jackson. This video offers a quick overview of Weatherford’s war with Jackson that ultimately led the demise of the Creek nation.

Here are some Jackson facts via the National Constitution Center.

You can also read more about William Weatherford, Andrew Jackson, and Jackson’s role in American history in A NATION RISING. Andrew Jackson’s life and presidency are also covered in Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents.

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents
A Nation Rising

“In the Shadow of Liberty”-Coming in September 2016

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I am thrilled to introduce the Advance Reader’s Edition of my forthcoming book:

IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY — The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives

Set for release on September 20, 2016, the book will be published by Holt Books for Young Readers. The book offers narrative accounts of five enslaved people who were the legal property of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. 

IMG_0375-465x620Contact Holt Books for Young Readers for review copies and publicity requests.

Books for Young Readers
Henry Holt and Company
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010

To request an author for an interview, please email: byrpublicity@hholt.com.

If you would like to receive a catalog or a review copy of a book, please fax the request on your letterhead to 646-307-5247.

Don’t Know Much About® Eli Whitney (A TED-Ed “Lesson Worth Sharing”)

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"Eli Whitney," portrait of the inventor, oil on canvas, by the American painter Samuel F. B. Morse. 35 7/8 in. x 27 3/4 in. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

“Eli Whitney,” portrait of the inventor, oil on canvas, by the American painter Samuel F. B. Morse. 35 7/8 in. x 27 3/4 in. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

On March 14, 1793, Eli Whitney received a patent for the machine known as the Cotton Gin. Here is a short video about the Connecticut-born inventor’s most famous “invention,” the Cotton Gin. This was created as my first contribution to Ted-Ed: “Lessons Worth Sharing.”

This portrait of the inventor is by another inventor– Samuel F.B. Morse who was a well-known painter and art teacher before he gained fame for the development of the telegraph and the Morse Code.

The cotton gin changed history for good and bad. By allowing one field hand to do the work of 10, it powered a new industry that brought wealth and power to the American South — but, tragically, it also multiplied and prolonged the use of slave labor.  In this video, I discuss  innovation, while warning of unintended consequences.

Eli Whitney died in New Haven, Connecticut on January 8, 1825.  You can learn more about Whitney and his inventions at the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop.

Read more about the history and impact of American slavery in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the Civil War and my forthcoming book In The Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Five Black Lives. (Holt Books, Sept. 20, 2016)

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition
In the Shadow of Liberty (September 20, 2016)
Don't Know Much About the Civil War

Who Said It? (3/12/2-16)

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When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.

Abraham Lincoln (November 1863) Photo by Alexander Gardner

Abraham Lincoln (November 1863) Photo by Alexander Gardner

Abraham Lincoln, “Letter to Joshua Speed” (August 24, 1855)

“When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.'”

Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed met in Springfield, Illinois, during the 1830s. Although Speed returned to his native Kentucky, they remained friends throughout life. In this letter, Lincoln expresses his thinking about slavery, which contrasted with Speed, who grew up on a plantation and owned slaves. The year before Lincoln wrote this letter, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed Congress, repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and opened the territories to slavery. The passage of this bill proved a turning point in Lincoln’s career. As he observed, “I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again.”

Source and Complete Text: Abraham Lincoln Online

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)
In the Shadow of Liberty- Publication date September 20, 2016 (Holt Books for Young Readers)
Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)
Posted on March 14, 2016 Comment Share:

Don’t Know Much About® Fascism

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In the midst of the current presidential campaign, the word “fascist” has been tossed about quite a bit. It is the political “F-word,” most associated with World War II dictators, Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolf Hitler.

Hitler (r) and Mussolini (l) ca. June 1940. Part of Eva Braun's Photo Albums, ca. 1913 - ca. 1944, seized by the U.S. government. This image is available from the Online Public Access (OPA) of the United States National Archives and Records Administration under the National Archives Identifier 540151. (Source: National Archives.

Hitler (r) and Mussolini (l) ca. June 1940. Part of Eva Braun’s Photo Albums, ca. 1913 – ca. 1944, seized by the U.S. government. This image is available from the Online Public Access (OPA) of the United States National Archives and Records Administration under the National Archives Identifier 540151. (Source: National Archives.

Lately, the term has been used specifically with respect to Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat asked in a New York Times Op-Ed “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?”

But what does this widely used word “fascist” mean?

Generally, fascism describes a military dictatorship built on racist and powerfully nationalistic foundations, generally with the broad support of the business class (distinguishing it from the collectivism of Communism).

Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), called Il Duce (which simply means “the leader”), was the son of a blacksmith, who came to power as prime minister in 1922. A preening bully of a man, he organized Italian World War I veterans into the anti-Communist and rabidly nationalistic “blackshirts,” a paramilitary group that used gang tactics to suppress strikes and attack leftist trade unions.

In 1925, Mussolini installed himself as head of a single-party state he called fascismo. The word came from fasces, a Latin word referring to a bundle of rods bound around an ax, which had been an ancient Roman symbol of authority and strength.

Flag of the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy first used in 1927 when Benito Mussolini served as Prime Minister. The flag was used until 1943, when Fascism was banned in Italy. (Source: Wikipedia Public Domain)

Flag of the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy first used in 1927 when Benito Mussolini served as Prime Minister. The flag was used until 1943, when Fascism was banned in Italy. (Source: Wikipedia Public Domain)

Mussolini blamed Italy’s problems on foreigners, and promised to make the trains run on time. (Contrary to popular belief, he did not.)

The rise to power of the three militaristic, totalitarian states that would form the wartime Axis—Germany, Japan, and Italy—as well as Fascist Spain under General Franco, can be laid to the aftershocks, both political and economic, of the First World War. It was rather easy, especially in the case of Germany and Italy, for demagogues to point to the smoldering ruins of their countries and the economic disaster of the worldwide Depression and blame their woes on foreigners.

In Germany, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) made scapegoats not only of the Communists and foreign powers who he claimed had stripped Germany of its land and military abilities at Versailles, but also of Jews, who he claimed were in control of the world’s finances.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Mussolini (l) and Hitler (r) in Berlin, 1937 (publishers Vitézi rend Zrinyi csoportjuának kiadása, Budapest, 1939) (Source: Wikipedia Public Domain)

Mussolini (l) and Hitler (r) in Berlin, 1937 (publishers Vitézi rend Zrinyi csoportjuának kiadása, Budapest, 1939) (Source: Wikipedia Public Domain)

(This text is adapted from Don’t Know Much About® History, “Who were the Fascists?” pages 361-365).

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition

 

In paperback May 2016 THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Read more about Hitler and Mussolini in The Hidden History of America at War.

In paperback May 2016 THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

“The Myth of America’s Genteel Political History”

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In the heat of the presidential campaign, the mudslinging has Americans once again complaining about negative politics. People say they yearn for the “good old days” when elections were more polite affairs. But the truth is that American presidential politics has been a nasty business from the first contested elections.

This audio essay, “The Myth of Americas Genteel Political History,” is a Commentary I wrote for for NPR’S “All Things Considered.” It is worth noting that it originally aired in October 2004.

As the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents

The “Slave Act of 1807:” A False Step Toward Abolition

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Thomas Jefferson, third president (Source: White House)

Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States (Source: White House)

On March 3, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law a bill approved by Congress the day before “to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States.” 

The 1807 act, which would go into effect on January 1, 1808, was a comprehensive attempt to shut down the foreign slavery trade.  Congress gave all traders nine months to cease their operations in the United States.

The 1807 Act was born out of language written into the original Constitution, debated and drafted in the summer of 1787:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

-Article I, Section 9

Slaveholding delegates, unwilling to accept a Constitution that placed any limits on American slavery, saw this as a victory. It protected the foreign  trade for another twenty years and provided no guarantee that the trade in enslaved people would end. And it prompted a vast increase in the importation of enslaved Africans:

During this period, labor hungry planters in the lower South imported tens of thousands of Africans; indeed, more slaves entered the United States between 1787 and 1807 than during any two decades in history.

–Peter Kolchin, American Slavery (Hill & Wang, 1993), p. 79

Of course, the end of the legal importation of enslaved people sounds like a good thing. Optimists at the Constitutional convention in 1787 and in Congress in 1807 saw the end of the foreign trade as a necessary first step to the ultimate end of slavery in America. They were woefully wrong.

U.S. Slave Trade 1830 (Image Courtesy of Smithsonian Museum of American History)

U.S. Slave Trade 1830 (Image Courtesy of Smithsonian Museum of American History)

The end of the legal foreign trade –illegal smuggling of enslaved Africans would continue– only created a large and more profitable internal market for the enslaved by forcing up the value of enslaved people, even as demand from cotton growers was increasing.

The 1807 act sought to end the trade, but did nothing to undermine the legitimacy holding men and women in bondage. 

(Source: “The Abolition of the Slave Trade,” New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

Large holders of enslaved people in essence became even more wealthy as breeders of enslaved people. In 1800, there were about one million enslaved people in America. By 1860, at the outbreak of the Civil War, there were nearly four million.

Expectations that ending the African slave trade would put slavery on the road to gradual extinction proved radically wide of the mark. During the half century after the legal end of slave importation, the slave population of the United States surpassed that of any other country in the New World….

–Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, p. 94

While a milestone of sorts in the abolition movement, the Slave Act of 1807 merely cemented the financial and political value of slavery for generations to come and did precious little to bring about its end.

Read more about the role of slavery in American history in my books:

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents
Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition
Don't Know Much About the Civil War

The subject is also at the center of my forthcoming book In The Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives. (Holt Books for Young Readers; September 20, 2016 publication date)

In the Shadow of Liberty (September 20, 2016)

How One President Helped Save College Football

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There are no “tackling dummies” in the Ivy League, one might assume.

Photo credit: Jim Cole AP via the New York Times

Photo credit: Jim Cole AP via the New York Times

As the college and professional football world continue to address the growing concern over severe injuries, football coaches in the Ivy League are moving to eliminate full-contact hitting from practices, reports the New York Times.

The latest controversies over concussions and other injuries are nothing new. More than 100 years ago, college football – was faced with possible extinction as the game had grown so violent and corrupt. But a football-loving President helped save the sport.

Theodore Roosevelt (Photo Source: NobelPrize.org)

Theodore Roosevelt (Photo Source: NobelPrize.org)

More than a century ago, before there was a true professional league, cash payments were made to “amateur” college athletes. Coaches gave orders to take out rivals on the field. In the sport’s primitive era, body blows, concussions, spinal injuries and even blood poisoning — the result of on-field savagery that included late hits, punching, kneeing, eye-gouging and vicious blows to the windpipe — often proved fatal. In 1905, these abuses and catastrophic injuries were so widespread, and public disapproval of them so deep, the game faced extinction. Football was saved, in part, by the intervention of the American president.

President Theodore Roosevelt, a fan of the sport –he was too small to play at Harvard– wanted to make sure that the game survived. Using his “bully pulpit,” Theodore Roosevelt stepped in. I wrote the story of how he did it in this New York Times Op-Ed, “Schools of Hard Knocks.”

Some other presidential football tidbits: Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted to play for Army but could not and became a cheerleader. Gerald Ford was a highly touted offensive lineman at Michigan who turned down pro offers.

Read more about Theodore Roosevelt, Ike and Ford in…

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion paperback-April 15, 2014)

Who Said It? (2/29/2016)

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...until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword...

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865) Photo Courtesy of the Library of C0ngress

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865) Photo Courtesy of the Library of C0ngress

President Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865)

 Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

Source and complete text: The Avalon Project-Yale University

Read more:

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)
Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)
Don't Know Much About the Civil War (Harper paperback, Random House Audio)
The Hidden History of America At War-May 5, 2015 (Hachette Books/Random House Audio)

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