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

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

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)

(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.)

This week from September 22-28, ,2013, the nation’s libraries mark Banned Books Week.

Rarely are books actually “banned” in America. More typically , they are pulled from libraries and classrooms after the objection of a an individual or group. The ALA 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.

So  it is time to think about the “Book Wars” again. That often means rounding up the “usual suspects” like The Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, or To Kill a Mockingbird.
But it also means that new books come along all the time that many parents, school board members or other individuals find “offensive” or “inappropriate.”

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.

Don’t Know Much About® George Washington

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.”

Don’t Know Much About® Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday

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.

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 Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents, Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the Civil War.

The newly revised, updated and exapnded edition of the New York Times Bestseller now in hardcover from HarperCollins

Don’t Know Much About@ History (2011 Revised and Updated Edition)


The paperback edition had been released witha new cover to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil war.

Don’t Know Much About Minute: More Pilgrims 101

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.

THE PLIMOTH PLANTATION historical site also offers a good overview of the Pilgrim story:

Don’t Know Much About@ Halloween–The Hidden History

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 Mythologymythology_cover_tilted

Ugly Campaigns Go Way Back

Think it’s bad now? How about being called a “whoremongering jacobin?”

“A Mormon and a Catholic Walk Into a Bar…”

Sounds like the opening line of a stand-up joke, doesn’t it?

The fact that a Mormon candidate for President and his Roman Catholic running mate seem to be attracting very little attention over their respective religions is almost news in itself. And good news. After all, the Constitution says,

 but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. (Article VI)

But in 1844, a Mormon and a Catholic certainly wouldn’t be running together for the top two offices in America. And if they walked into a bar in Philadelphia, they might get their teeth knocked out. Or worse.

That is the story I tell in this video about the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant “Bible Riots” of 1844 in the City of Brotherly Love.

We’d like to believe in that old “melting pot” myth of American religious freedom. But in fact, the nation’s history is riddled with religious intolerance –and it often reared its head in presidential politics. The “Christian Nation” fallacy is a subject I addressed in the article “Why US Is Not a Christian Nation,” published on July 4, 2011 –but as timely as ever.


A Nation Rising (Harper)

The story of the “Bible Riots” is told in greater detail in A NATION RISING.

The subject of religion and the presidency is also explored in my forthcoming book Don ‘t Know Much About® the American Presidents, available on September 18.

Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents
(September 18, 2012-Hyperion Books)

Flag Day and Mr. Madison’s War

America  is preparing to mark the 200th anniversary of one of the most unnecessary and avoidable wars in its history– the War of 1812, or “Mr. Madison’s War,” declared by Congress  on June 18, 1812.

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 later get a fresh coat of paint and 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:

The history of the War of 1812, including a Timeline of major events, is explored in greater depth in the Anniversary edition of Don’t Know Much About History, now available in paperback.

Don't Know Much About History (Anniversary Edition, paperback)


When Irish Eyes Were Not Smiling-The Bible Riots

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.

The story of the “Bible Riots” is another untold tale that I explore in my book A NATION RISING


A Nation Rising: A Video Q&A with Author Kenneth C. Davis

(Originally recorded in May 2010)


“With his special gift for revealing the significance of neglected historical characters, Kenneth Davis creates a multilayered, haunting narrative. Peeling back the veneer of self-serving nineteenth-century patriotism, Davis evokes the raw and violent spirit not just of an ‘expanding nation,’ but of an emerging and aggressive empire.”

-Ray Raphael, author of Founders