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.
“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.
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.
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
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)
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.
(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 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.
The worst frontier massacre in American history took place 200 years ago 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, the future hero of the Battle of New Orleans and future 7th president of the United States., 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, also known as Red Eagle, wasn’t fighting a cruel King. He was at war with the United States government. And Andrew Jackson.
A NATION RISING (Smithsonian/Harper Collins and Random House Audio)
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)
Robert Frost (Courtesy American Memory Collection (Library of Congress)
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 gravesite 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.
February 12 used to mean something — 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. And this year marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863. And it looks like President Lincoln may have a good night at the Oscars, thanks to Steven Spielbrg’s film Lincoln.
“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.
When Abraham Lincoln signed a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863 calling for a day of gratitude on the last Thursday in November, it began an unbroken string of presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations. In 1941, the FOURTH Thursday in November was set as a national holiday by Congress and signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In my previous video and quiz about Thanksgiving, I told you that there were no black hats with buckles, half of the “pilgrims” weren’t Pilgrims and that the first Thanksgiving was really in October. Here are a few more pieces of the picture.
And here is a link to a story I wrote for the New York Times about America’s real first Pilgrims, a group of French settlers in Florida who arrived 50 years before the Mayflower sailed.
A day of “Thanksgiving” was officially proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. It was the beginning of an unbroken string of Thanksgiving proclamation by American presidents. The last Thursday in November became an official national holiday in 1941, signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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