(Post updated 12/5/2016)
Martin Van Buren, the eighth President of the United States, was born on December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, New York, making him the first American president born a U.S. citizen. Van Buren was also known as “Old Kinderhook, or “OK,” the origin of that American expression.
Van Buren was also the first New Yorker elected President. He was a crafty political power broker who mastered the art of “machine politics” and helped bring New York into Andrew Jackson’s column in 1828. He became Jackson’s Secretary of State and later his vice president. He won the presidential election of 1836. But his presidency was tainted by the Panic of 1837, a deep economic depression that lasted seven years. He was defeated in 1840 by William Henry Harrison of the Whig Party.
•Van Buren was the first president not of English descent. Growing up in a Dutch-speaking household, he was also the only president who spoke English as a second language.
•As a young attorney, he became the protege of Aaron Burr. Due to a passing resemblance and their political and professional connections, it was rumored that he was Burr’s son, gossip thoroughly dismissed by historians.
•Elected Governor of New York in November 1828, Van Buren took the office on January 1, 1829 but resigned on March 12, 1829 to become secretary of state, making him the shortest tenured governor in New York history.
•During Van Buren’s administration, the removal of native Americans from the Southeast accelerated including the removal of the Cherokee on the “Trail of Tears.”
•The Congressional “gag rule” was passed during his presidency; the rule forbid any discussion of petitions relating to slavery, including banning slavery in Washington, D.C, as mentioned in Van Buren’s inaugural address above.
•Failing to win the Democratic nomination in 1844, Van Buren became the first president to run on a third party ticket when he joined the Free Soil Party as its candidate in 1848.
And read more about Van Buren and his administration in Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents
Like the Macy’s parade, here is my Thanksgiving tradition. I post two articles about the holiday that I wrote for the New York Times.
The first, from 2008, is called “A French Connection” and tells the story of the real first Pilgrims in America. They were French. In Florida. Fifty years before the Mayflower sailed. It did not end with a happy meal. In fact, it ended in a religious massacre.
TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux. After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the “New World” were French. And they beat their English counterparts by 50 years. That French settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise Americans raised on our foundational myth, but the record is clear.
The complete story can be found in America’s Hidden History.
The second is “How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving” (2014) and tells the story of the Union League providing Thanksgiving dinners to Union troops.
Of all the bedtime-story versions of American history we teach, the tidy Thanksgiving pageant may be the one stuffed with the heaviest serving of myth. This iconic tale is the main course in our nation’s foundation legend, complete with cardboard cutouts of bow-carrying Native American cherubs and pint-size Pilgrims in black hats with buckles. And legend it largely is.
In fact, what had been a New England seasonal holiday became more of a “national” celebration only during the Civil War, with Lincoln’s proclamation calling for “a day of thanksgiving” in 1863.
Enjoy them both. Now for some football.
In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives is reviewed in the November 13, 2016 issue of the New York Times Book Review:
Similarly, Davis never shies away from the grotesque paradox of our nation’s most eloquent proponents of liberty denying that precious right to so many of their countrymen. Still, his primary mission is to illuminate the interior lives of the men and women forced into lives of ceaseless labor.
The complete review: “Black Lives Didn’t Matter” by Jabari Asim
The book has also received excellent advance reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist.
Both the hardcover and audio versions of the book are available for purchase online
One of the most famous symbols of the sacrifice and loss we mark on Veterans is the Poppy, inspired by this World War I poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by John McCrae.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
“Soon after writing “In Flanders Field,” McCrae was transferred to a hospital in France, where he was named the chief of medical services. Saddened and disillusioned by the war, McCrae found respite in writing letters and poetry, and wrote his final poem, “The Anxious Dead.”
In the summer of 1917, McCrae’s health took a turn, and he began suffering from severe asthma attacks and bronchitis. McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis on January 28, 1918.” (Poets.org)
Inspired by McCrae’s poem, an American woman, Moina Michael originated the idea of wearing red poppies to honor the war dead. She sold poppies with the money going to benefit servicemen, and the movement caught on, spreading to Europe as well. In 1948, Moina Michael was honored for founding the Poppy Movement with a red 3 cent postage stamp.
“The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
(This is a revised version of a post originally written for Veterans Day in 2011. The meaning still applies.)
On Veterans Day, a reminder of what the day once meant and what it should still mean.
That was the moment at which World War I –then called THE GREAT WAR– largely came to end in 1918. on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
One of the most tragically senseless and destructive periods in all history came to a close in Western Europe with the Armistice –or end of hostilities between Germany and the Allied nations — that began at that moment. Some 20 million people had died in the fighting that raged for more than four years since August 1914. The complete end of the war came with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
The date of November 11th became a national holiday of remembrance in many of the victorious allied nations –a day to commemorate the loss of so many lives in the war. And in the United States, President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. A few years later, in 1926, Congress passed a resolution calling on the President to observe each November 11th as a day of remembrance:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
Of course, the hopes that “the war to end all wars” would bring peace were short-lived. By 1939, Europe was again at war and what was once called “the Great War” would become World War I. With the end of World War II, there was a movement in America to rename Armistice Day and create a holiday that recognized the veterans of all of America’s conflicts. President Eisenhower signed that law in 1954. (In 1971, Veterans Day began to be marked as a Monday holiday on the third Monday in November, but in 1978, the holiday was returned to the traditional November 11th date).
Today, Veterans Day honors the duty, sacrifice and service of America’s nearly 25 million veterans of all wars, unlike Memorial Day, which specifically honors those who died fighting in America’s wars.
We should remember and celebrate all those men and women. But lost in that worthy goal is the forgotten meaning of this day in history –the meaning which Congress gave to Armistice Day in 1926:
to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations …
inviting the people of the United States to observe the day … with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
The Library of Congress offers an extensive Veterans History Project.
The Veterans Administration website offers more resources on teaching about Veterans Day.
Read more about World War I and all of America’s conflicts in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
I discuss the role of Americans in battle in more than 240 years of American history in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (Hachette Books and Random House Audio)
The first reviews are in for In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives. (Holt Books for Young Readers/Penguin Random House Audio, September 20, 2016)
[UPDATED October 10, 2016]
*Publishers Weekly in a *Starred Review:
“–delivers an eye-opening vision of ‘stubborn facts’ in American history…”
Read the complete Publishers Weekly review here.
*School Library Journal in a *Starred Review has called the book:
Read the complete School Library Journal review here.
*Booklist *Starred Review said:
“A valuable, broad perspective on slavery, paired with close-up views of individuals who benefited from it and those who endured it.” Booklist
Kirkus has called the book:
“An important and timely corrective.” Kirkus
In the Nonfiction Book of the Week, Horn Books says:
“Davis’s solid research (there are source notes and bibliographies for each chapter), accessible prose, and determination to make these stories known give young readers an important alternative to textbook representations of colonial life.”
In the Shadow of Liberty is now available from Holt Books for Young Readers and Penguin Random House Audio.
On October 28, 1922, Fascism came to Italy as Benito Mussolini took control of the government. (New York Times Learning Network)
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.
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.
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.
(This text is adapted from Don’t Know Much About® History, “Who were the Fascists?” pages 361-365).
Answer: All of the enslaved people in Yorktown who had escaped to the British in hopes of freedom.
When the British forces under Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington and his French allies on October 19, 1781, the terms of capitulation included the following phrase
It is understood that any property obviously belonging to the inhabitants of these States, in the possession of the garrison, shall be subject to be reclaimed.
(Article IV, Articles of Capitulation; dated October 18, 1781. Source and Complete Text: Avalon Project-Yale Law School)
Thousands of escaped enslaved people had flocked to the British army during Cornwallis’s campaign in Virginia in what has been called the “largest slave rebellion in American history.”
They had come in the belief that the British would free them. Cornwallis had put them to work on the British defense works around the small tobacco port, and when disease started to spread and supplies ran low, Cornwallis forced hundreds of these people out of Yorktown. Many more died from epidemic diseases and the shelling of American and French artillery during the siege.
The African Americans in Yorktown included at least seventeen people who had left Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation with the British, as well as members of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved community also captured earlier in 1781. They were all returned to bondage, along with thousands of others as Virginian slaveholders came to Yorktown to recover their “property.”
Among them was Isaac Granger Jefferson, a five-year-old boy who was returned to Monticello and later told his story.
The stories of some of the people “reclaimed” by Washington are told in my new book, IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY; The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.
The Battle of Yorktown and role of African-American soldiers there –as well as the fate of the enslaved people in the besieged town — are featured in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah.
“A fascinating exploration of war and the myths of war. Kenneth C. Davis shows how interesting the truth can be.” –Evan Thomas, New York Times-bestselling author of Sea of Thunder and John Paul Jones
(Video edited and produced by Colin Davis; originally posted October 2011)
I found it (the world) was not round . . . but pear shaped, round where it has a nipple, for there it is taller, or as if one had a round ball and, on one side, it should be like a woman’s breast, and this nipple part is the highest and closest to Heaven.
–Christopher Columbus, Log of his third voyage (1498)
“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
We all remember that. But after that basic date, things get a little fuzzy. Here’s what they didn’t tell you–
*Most educated people knew that the world was not flat.
*Columbus never set foot in what would become America.
*Christopher Columbus made four voyages to the so-called New World. And his discoveries opened an astonishing era of exploration and exploitation. But his arrival marked the beginning of the end for tens of millions of Native Americans spread across two continents.
* On his third voyage, he wrote that the world was not round but pear shaped, like a woman’s breast. They did not tell us that in Geography class.
In 1892, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus inspired the composition of the original Pledge of Allegiance and a proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison describing Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” (Source: Library of Congress, “American Memory: Today in History: October 12”)
That was the patriotic American can-do spirit behind the Columbian Exposition—also known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.
In 1934, the “progress and enlightenment” celebrated in the Columbus narrative was powerful enough to merit a federal holiday on October 12 – a reflection of the growing political clout of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal organization that fought discrimination against recently arrived immigrants, many of them Italian and Irish.
Once a hero. Now a villain. Cities and states around the country are changing the name of the holiday to “Indigenous People’s Day” or “Native American Day” to move this holiday away from a man whose treatment of the natives he encountered included barbaric punishments and forced labor. Seattle joined the move to swap Columbus Day
The story of “Isabella’s Pigs,” and the role of Queen Isabella in the making of the New World, is depicted in America’s Hidden History
President Harry S. Truman in the first-ever televised address from the White House (October 5, 1947).
As post-war Europe struggled to recover, Truman asked Americans to refrain from eating meat and eggs on different days to help stockpile food supplies. The effort was mostly symbolic and was a prelude to the far more ambitious Marshall Plan which had a much greater impact on post-World War II Europe.
The food-saving program which has just been presented to you has my wholehearted support. I am confident that it will have the support of every American.
The situation in Europe is grim and forbidding as winter approaches. Despite the vigorous efforts of the European people, their crops have suffered so badly from droughts, floods, and cold that the tragedy of hunger is a stark reality.
The nations of Western Europe will soon be scraping the bottom of the food barrel. They cannot get through the coming winter and spring without help–generous help-from the United States and from other countries which have food to spare.
I know every American feels in his heart that we must help to prevent starvation and distress among our fellow men in other countries…
It is simple and straightforward. It can be understood by all. Learn it–memorize it–keep it always in mind. Here it is: One: Use no meat on Tuesdays.
Two: Use no poultry or eggs on Thursdays.
Three: Save a slice of bread every day.
Four: Public eating places will serve bread and butter only on request.
Complete Text and Source: “Radio and Television Address Concluding a Program by the Citizens Food Committee,” October 5, 1947. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
Read more about Truman and the post war world in Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents, Don’t Know Much About History and The Hidden History of America At War.