“In Depth” on Book TV with Kenneth C. Davis

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.

Watch the video here.

The World is a Pear: Columbus Day 2014

(Video edited and produced by Colin Davis; originally posted October 2011)

“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.

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 e found  included barbaric punishments and forced labor.
You can read more about Christopher Columbus, his voyages and their impact on American history in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About Geography.

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

Don't Know Much About® Geography (Revised and Updated Edition-Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® Geography (Revised and Updated Edition-Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

 

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

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

americashiddenhistory

Don’t Know Much About® Field Trip: the National Anthem

 

(Video shot, edited and produced by Colin Davis)

Two hundred 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.

Fort McHenry-Baltimore Harbor (Video frame by Colin Davis)

Fort McHenry-Baltimore Harbor (Video frame by Colin Davis)

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.

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

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

Juneteenth- Time to celebrate

The official Juneteenth Committee in East Woods Park, Austin, Texas on June 19, 1900. (Courtesy Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

The official Juneteenth Committee in East Woods Park, Austin, Texas on June 19, 1900. (Courtesy Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

Happy Juneteenth! Since 1865, June 19th has served as another kind of Independence Day. It is a day that celebrates the end of slavery in America.

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger informed former slaves in the area from the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston, Texas that they were free. Abraham Lincoln had officially issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but it had taken two more years of Union victories to end the war in April 1865 and for this news to reach enslaved people  in remote sections of the country.

This is from General Granger’s Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Many of the newly freed slaves in the territory, the last area to receive news of the war’s end and Emancipation, celebrated the news with ecstasy, and according to the Texas State Library, the words “June” and “nineteenth” became a new word and a new celebration of freedom. They called it Juneteenth.

In many parts of Texas, ex-slaves purchased land, or “emancipation grounds,” for the Juneteenth gathering. Examples include: Emancipation Park in Houston, purchased in 1872; what is now Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia; and Emancipation park in East Austin.

Other former slaves began to travel to other states in search of family members who had been separated from them by slave sales.  Starting in 1866, that spontaneous celebration –more commonly called “Juneteenth”– spread to become  a holiday celebrating emancipation in many parts of the United States, although it still lacks national recognition.  Read more about Juneteenth in the article  Juneteenth: Our Other Independence Day , which I wrote for Smithsonian.com

 

 

Don’t Know Much About® Memorial Day

(Video originally posted May 2012. Produced, edited and directed by Colin Davis)

Memorial Day brings thoughts of duty, honor, courage, sacrifice and loss. The holiday, the most somber date on the American national calendar, was born in the ashes of the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” when General John S. Logan –a-veteran of the Mexican and Civil Wars, a prominent Illinois politician and leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union fraternal organization –called for May 30, 1868 as the day on which the graves of fallen Union soldiers would be decorated with fresh flowers.

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds.”

Pointedly, Logan’s order was seen as a day to honor those who died opposing the “rebellion.”

Every year at this time, I spend a lot of time talking about the roots and traditions of Memorial Day.

It’s not about the barbecue or the Mattress Sales. Obscured by the holiday atmosphere around Memorial Day is the fact that it is the most solemn day on the national calendar. This video tells a bit about the history behind the holiday.

One way to mark Memorial Day is by simply reading the Gettysburg Address. Here is a link to the Library of Congress and its page on the Address.  I also discussed Memorial Day in a previous post.

One of the most famous symbols of the loss on Memorial Day is the Poppy, inspired by this World War I poem by John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

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.

 Source: The poem is in the public domain courtesy of Poets.org

 

 

Soldiers of the 146th Infantry, 37th Division, crossing the Scheldt River at Nederzwalm under fire. Image courtesy of The National Archives.

Soldiers of the 146th Infantry, 37th Division, crossing the Scheldt River at Nederzwalm under fire. Image courtesy of The National Archives.

Have a memorable Memorial Day!

(Images in video:Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Flanders Cemetery image Courtesy of the American Battle Monuments Commission)

“A lover’s quarrel with the world”-Robert Frost

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

Robert Frost (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Robert Frost (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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.

A brief biography of Robert Frost can be found at Poets.org, where there are more samples of his poetry. It includes an account of Frost and JFK.

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.

Don’t Know Much About® Andrew Jackson

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? Imacon Color Scanner 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.

Don't Know Much About the American Presidents (2012) (From Hyperion and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents (2012)
(From Hyperion and Random House Audio)

PBS also offers a good look at the different sides of Andrew Jackson.

A NATION RISING (Harper paperback/Random House Audio)

A NATION RISING (Harper paperback/Random House Audio)

 

Don’t Know Much About® Eli Whitney: A TED-Ed Lesson

"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.

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.

Thanksgiving Pop Quiz- A Videoblog

With Thanksgiving around the corner, cutouts of Pilgrims in black clothes and clunky shoes are sprouting all over the place. You may know that the Pilgrims sailed aboard the Mayflower and arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. But did you know their first Thanksgiving celebration lasted three whole days? What else do you know about these early settlers of America? Don’t be a turkey. Try this True-False quiz.

True or False? (Answers below)
1. Pilgrims always wore stiff black clothes and shoes with silver buckles.
2. The Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom.
3. Everyone on the Mayflower was a Pilgrim.
4. The Pilgrims were saved from starvation by a native American friend named Squanto.
5. The Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in America.

Read more about the Mayflower and its passengers with your children in Don’t Know Much About the Pilgrims.

Don’t Know Much About® the Pilgrims


And read about America’s real “first Pilgrims”–French Huguenots who landed in Florida more than fifty years before the Mayflower sailed– in America’s Hidden History
americas_hidden_history1

The site of Plimouth Plantation is definitely worth a visit.

 

Answers
1. False. Pilgrims wore blue, green, purple and brownish clothing for everyday. Those who had good black clothes saved them for the Sabbath. No Pilgrims had buckles– artists made that up later!
2. True. The Pilgrims were a group of radical Puritans who had broken away from the Church of England. After 11 years of “exile” in Holland, they decided to come to America.
3. False. Only about half of the 102 people on the Mayflower were what William Bradford later called “Pilgrims.” The others, called “Strangers” just wanted to come to the New World.
4. True. Squanto, or Tisquantum, helped teach the Pilgrims to hunt, farm and fish. He learned English after being taken as a slave aboard an English ship.
5. False. The Indians had been having similar harvest feasts for years. So did the English settlers in Virginia and Spanish settlers in the southwest before the Pilgrims even got to America. And the Mayflower Pilgrims weren’t even America’s “first Pilgrims.” That honor goes to French Huguenots who settled in Florida more than 50 years before the Mayflower sailed.

 

Don't Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Don’t Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Banned Books Week (2013): “Don’t Join the Book Burners”

(This video was made in 2010 but I re-post it for Banned Books Week)

To close out the 2013 edition of Banned Books Week, I offer the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a commencement address delivered at Dartmouth in 1953:

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.

–President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Remarks at Dartmouth College Commencement (June 14, 1953)

President Eisenhower (Courtesy: Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum)

President Eisenhower (Courtesy: Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum)

 

(Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Remarks at the Dartmouth College Commencement Exercises, Hanover, New Hampshire.,” June 14, 1953. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9606.)

While books are rarely actually “banned” in America, the concept of restricting access to some books is much more commonplace, usually in classrooms and school libraries. Typically , books are pulled from shelves and reading lists after the objection of a an individual or group. The American Library Association, which sponsors “Banned Books Week,” explains the difference between “banned” and “challenged.”

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.  A banning is the removal of those materials.  Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.  Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.

As the nation debates “Common Core,” an educational approach that demands reading and responding to ideas, the importance of this reminder of the right to free expression and the value of THINKING in a free society is more urgent than ever.

You can find many more resources on the issue of “banned” and “challenged” books at the American Library Association.

The New York Times Learning Network also offers some good teaching resources on classroom discussion of “controversial” books.