(Video directed and produced by Colin Davis)
When I was a kid in the early 1960s, the autumn social calendar was highlighted by the Halloween party in our church. In these simpler day, the kids all bobbed for apples and paraded through a spooky “haunted house” in homemade costumes –Daniel Boone replete with coonskin caps for the boys; tiaras and fairy princess wands for the girls. It was safe, secure and innocent.
The irony is that our church was a Congregational church — founded by the Puritans of New England. The same people who brought you the Salem Witch Trials.
Here’s a link to a history of those Witch Trials in 1692.
Rooted in pagan traditions more than 2000 years old, Halloween grew out of a Celtic Druid celebration that marked summer’s end. Called Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sow-een), it combined the Celts’ harvest and New Year festivals, held in late October and early November by people in what is now Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. This ancient Druid rite was tied to the seasonal cycles of life and death — as the last crops were harvested, the final apples picked and livestock brought in for winter stables or slaughter. Contrary to what some modern critics believe, Samhain was not the name of a malevolent Celtic deity but meant, “end of summer.”
The Celts also saw Samhain as a fearful time, when the barrier between the worlds of living and dead broke, and spirits walked the earth, causing mischief. Going door to door, children collected wood for a sacred bonfire that provided light against the growing darkness, and villagers gathered to burn crops in honor of their agricultural gods. During this fiery festival, the Celts wore masks, often made of animal heads and skins, hoping to frighten off wandering spirits. As the celebration ended, families carried home embers from the communal fire to re-light their hearth fires.
Getting the picture? Costumes, “trick or treat” and Jack-o-lanterns all got started more than two thousand years ago at an Irish bonfire.
Christianity took a dim view of these “heathen” rites. Attempting to replace the Druid festival of the dead with a church-approved holiday, the seventh-century Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor saints and martyrs. Then in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to remember the departed and pray for their souls. Together, the three celebrations –All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls Day– were called Hallowmas, and the night before came to be called All-hallows Evening, eventually shortened to “Halloween.”
And when millions of Irish and other Europeans emigrated to America, they carried along their traditions. The age-old practice of carrying home embers in a hollowed-out turnip still burns strong. In an Irish folk tale, a man named Stingy Jack once escaped the devil with one of these turnip lanterns. When the Irish came to America, Jack’s turnip was exchanged for the more easily carved pumpkin and Stingy Jack’s name lives on in “Jack-o-lantern.”
Halloween, in other words, is deeply rooted in myths –ancient stories that explain the seasons and the mysteries of life and death.
You can read more about ancient myths in the modern world in Don’t Know Much About Mythology and more about the Salem Witch Trials in Don’t Know Much About History.
(Video shot, edited and produced by Colin Davis)
Two hundred and one years ago, Francis Scott Key penned the words that later became the national anthem. This video is from my 2009 field trip to Fort McHenry.
It was September 13, 1814. America was at war with England for the second time since 1776. Francis Scott Key was an attorney attempting to negotiate the return of a civilian prisoner held by the British who had just burned Washington DC and had set their sights on Baltimore. As the British attacked the city, Key watched the naval bombardment from a ship in Baltimore’s harbor. In the morning, he could see that the Stars and Stripes still flew over Fort McHenry. Inspired, he wrote the lyrics that we all know –well some of you know some of them.
But here’s what they didn’t tell you:
•Yes, Washington, D.C. was burned in 1814, including the President’s Home which would later get a fresh coat of paint and be called the “White House.” But Washington was torched in retaliation for the burning of York –now Toronto—in Canada earlier in the war.
•Yes, Key wrote words. But the music comes from an old English drinking song. Good thing it wasn’t 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.Here’s a link to the original lyrics of that drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven via Poem of the Week.
•The Star Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1916 when President Wilson declared it by Executive Order. But that didn’t really count. Finally, in 1931, it became the National Anthem by Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover, on March 3.
Now, here are a couple of footnotes to the Francis Scott Key story—his son, Philip Barton Key, was a District Attorney in Washington. DC. He was shot and killed by Congressman Daniel Sickles. Sickles was acquitted with the first use of the defense of temporary insanity in 1859. And went on to serve as a Civil War general –and not a very good one.
And speaking of the Civil War, Key’s grandson was later imprisoned in Fort McHenry along with Baltimore’s Mayor and other pro-Confederate sympathizers.
Here are some places to learn more about Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key and the Flag that inspired the National Anthem: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
The images and music in this video are courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History
This version of the anthem in the video is performed on 19th century instruments also courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum.
(Repost of a 2011 videoblog, directed, edited and produced by Colin Davis)
Answer: Labor Day was signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894
The end of summer, a three-day weekend, burgers on the grill, and a back-to-school shopping spree, right? And the most important question, “Can I still wear white?”
But very few people associate Labor Day with a turbulent time in American History. That’s what Labor Day is really about. The holiday was born during the violent union-busting days of the late 19th century, when sweat shop conditions killed children, when there was no minimum wage and when going on vacation meant you were out of work.
If you like holidays, benefits and a five-day, 40-hour work week, you need to know about Labor Day.
When Labor Day was signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894, it was a bone tossed to the labor movement. And it was deliberately placed in September to ensure that it would not recall the memory of the deadly rioting at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in May 1886. Europe’s workers, and later the Communist Party, adopted May Day as a worker’s holiday to commemorate the deadly Haymarket Sqaure Riot which came about during a strike against thee McCormack Reaper Company.
Although Labor Day did become federal law in 1894, most of labor’s successes –the minimum wage, overtime, the end of child labor – did not come about until the Depression-era reforms of the New Deal.
Labor Day was created to celebrate the “strength and spirit of the American worker.” But this holiday should remind us that — like so many things we take for granted — those victories for working people came at great cost, in blood, sweat and tears.
For more on the history of Haymarket Square, here is a link to the Chicago Historical Society’s web project.
“American Experience,” the PBS documentary series, produced a Homestead Strike piece as part of its film about Andrew Carnegie.
You can read more about the history of the trade union movement in Don’t Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition and Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents.
This video is a brief introduction to my new book, THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (published May 5, 2015 by Hachette Books and Random House Audio)
“His searing analyses and ability to see the forest as well as the trees make for an absorbing and infuriating read as he highlights the strategic missteps, bad decisions, needless loss of life, horrific war crimes, and political hubris that often accompany war.”
–Publishers Weekly *Starred Review Link Full Review
More Advance Praise for THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR
“There’s only one person who can top Kenneth C. Davis—and that’s Kenneth C. Davis. With The Hidden History of America at War, he’s composed yet another brilliant, thought-provoking, and compelling book. . . Davis offers a hard-hitting and sometimes critical look at some of the most consequential wartime decisions made by presidents and policy makers, but his admiration and respect for the men and women who have served and sacrificed so much for this nation is unwavering.”
—Andrew Carroll, editor of the New York Times-bestsellers War Letters and Behind the Lines
“With his trademark storytelling flair, Kenneth C. Davis illuminates six critical, but often overlooked battles that helped define America’s character and its evolving response to conflict. This fascinating and strikingly insightful book is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand our nation’s bloody history of war.”
—Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan and When America First Met China
“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
(A repost of a video made a few years ago but always timely. Filmed, directed and edited by Colin Davis)
In June 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain. It would be derided as “Mr. Madison’s War.”
It is also appropriate to note that today — June 14– is Flag Day, the day that the Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the nation’s flag in 1777.
These two landmarks come together because it was during the War of 1812 that America got the words that eventually became its national anthem –with music borrowed from an old English drinking song. Almost from the outset, the song has been butchered at baseball games and Super Bowls.
At war with England for the second time since 1776, the United States was ill-prepared for fighting and the British were preoccupied with a war with France. So it was a fitful few years of war.
But the conflict produced an iconic American moment in September 1814. Francis Scott Key was an attorney attempting to negotiate the return of a civilian prisoner held by the British who had just burned Washington DC and had set their sights on Baltimore. As the British attacked the city, Key watched the naval bombardment from a ship in Baltimore’s harbor. In the morning, he could see that the Stars and Stripes still flew over Fort McHenry. Inspired, he wrote the lyrics that we all know –well, at least some of you probably know some of them.
But here’s what they didn’t tell you:
Yes, Washington, D.C. was burned by the British in 1814, including the President’s Mansion which would be rebuilt and later come to be called the “White House.” But Washington was torched in retaliation for the burning of York –now Toronto—in Canada earlier in the war.
Yes, Key wrote words. But the music comes from an old English drinking song. Good thing it wasn’t 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. Here’s a link to the original lyrics of the drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven (via Poem of the Week).
The Star Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1916 when President Wilson declared it by Executive Order. But that didn’t really count. In 1931, it became the National Anthem by Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover.,
Now here are two other key –no pun intended– events related to Flag Day, June 14:
•In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that schoolchildren could not be compelled to salute the flag if it conflicted with their religious beliefs
•In 1954 on Flag Day, President Eisenhower signed the law that added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Learn more about Fort McHenry, Key and the Flag that inspired the National Anthem from the National Park Service.
The images and music in this video are courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History which has excellent resources on the flag that inspired Key.
This version of the anthem is on 19th century instruments:
(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.”
On November 4, 2012, New York Times Bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis sat down for a comprehensive three-hour interview with C-Span’s Book TV.
The interview, which included questions from callers and via e-mail, covered Davis’ career as a writer spanning more than 20 years. In the interview, he discussed his approach to writing history in such books as Don’t Know Much About® History. He also described his background, growing up in Mt. Vernon, New York, how he became a writer, and his early work, including his first book, Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, which discussed the rise of the paperback publishing industry and the impact of books on American society.
Davis also described the success of his “Don’t Know Much About®” series, with its emphasis on making history both accessible and entertaining while connecting the past to the present.
In honor of his birthday on March 26, 1874, a video tribute to Robert Frost.
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world
Robert Frost’s epitaph
One of my favorite places in Vermont is the Frost grave-site in the cemetery of the First Church in Old Bennington -just down the street from the Bennington Monument. This video was recorded there.
Apples, birches, hayfields and stone walls; simple features like these make up the landscape of four-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Frost’s poetry. Known as a poet of New England, Frost (1874-1963) spent much of his life working and wandering the woods and farmland of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. As a young man, he dropped out of Dartmouth and then Harvard, then drifted from job to job: teacher, newspaper editor, cobbler. His poetry career took off during a three-year trip to England with his wife Elinor where Ezra Pound aided the young poet. Frost’s language is plain and straightforward, his lines inspired by the laconic speech of his Yankee neighbors.
But while poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” are accessible enough to make Frost a grammar-school favorite, his poetry is contemplative and sometimes dark—concerned with themes like growing old and facing death. One brilliant example is this poem about a young boy sawing wood, Out, out–
The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
The first poet invited to speak at a Presidential inaugural, Frost told the new President:
Be more Irish than Harvard. Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age. Don’t be afraid of power.
Robert Frost died on January 29, 1963. He had written his own epitaph, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world,” etched on his headstone in a church cemetery in Bennington, VT.
Here is the NYTimes obituary published after his death.
This material is adapted from Don’t Know Much About Literature written in collaboration with Jenny Davis.
Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, was born on March 15, 1767 in Waxhaw (on the border of both South and North Carolina, the exact 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.”
As a boy in the American Revolution, as a self-taught military commander, and as two-term president –serving from 1829-1837– Andrew Jackson was one of the most influential and powerful of American chief executives. Although his greatest fame as a soldier came during the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, Jackson established his reputation as a tough and remorseless leader during the Creek War, fought as the War of 1812 was already underway.
His place and reputation as an Indian fighter in this overlooked fight against the Creek Indians began with the worst frontier massacre in American history on August 30, 1813, when a group of Creek Indians, led by a half-Creek, half-Scot warrior named William Weatherford, or Red Eagle, attacked 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 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.
You can 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.
PBS also offers a good look at the different sides of Andrew Jackson.
To mark the birthday of American Eli Whitney on December 8, 1765, 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.