It’s that time of year. Time once again to explain that the upcoming national holiday is not “Presidents Day.”
Yes, I cannot tell a lie. The day we celebrate on the third Monday in February is really called “George Washington’s Birthday.” Ask the National Archives.
Want to learn a little more?
Here is the website for the National Park Service’s Birthplace of Washington site.
And here is the National Park Service website for Fort Necessity, scene of Washington’s surrender and “confession.”
(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
(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.”
(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.
February 12 used to mean something special — Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. It was never a national holiday but it was pretty important when I was a kid and we got the day off from school in my hometown.
The Uniform Holidays Act in 1971 changed that by creating Washington’s Birthday as a federal holiday on the third Monday in February. It is NOT officially “Presidents Day.”
But it is still a good excuse to talk about Abraham Lincoln, especially since his real birthday is on the calendar.c
“Honest Abe.” “The Railsplitter.” “The Great Emancipator.” You know some of the basics and the legends. But check out this video to learn some of things you may not know, but should, about the 16th President.
Here’s a link to the Lincoln Birthplace National Park
This link is to the Emancipation Proclamation page at the National Archives.
And you can read much more about Lincoln in these books:
(Original video created and directed by Colin Davis)
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)
The site of Plimouth Plantation is definitely worth a visit.
Read about America’s real “first Pilgrims”–French Huguenots who landed in Florida more than fifty years before the Mayflower sailed– in this New York Times Op-Ed, “A French Connection“ and in my book America’s Hidden History
(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