Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.
-Thomas Paine Common Sense
One of the most significant pieces of writing in American history was published on January 10, 1776. It was Thomas Paine’s essay Common Sense and is widely credited with helping to rouse Americans to the patriot cause. Its sales were extraordinary at the time; given the American population today, current day sales would amount to some 60 million copies.
The pamphleteering Paine is best known for Common Sense and The Crisis, among other works that supported the cause of independence. But after the Revolution, Paine returned to his native England and later went to France, then in the throes of its Revolution. Paine was caught up in the complex politics of the bloody Revolution there, eventually winding up in a French prison cell, facing the prospect of the guillotine.
After eventually being freed, Paine wrote an open letter in 1796 angrily denouncing President George Washington for failing to do enough to secure his release.
“Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement. The lands obtained by the Revolution were lavished upon partisans; the interest of the disbanded soldier was sold to the speculator…In what fraudulent light must Mr. Washington’s character appear in the world, when his declarations and his conduct are compared together!”
Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon
This was a serious case of bridge-burning and Paine swiftly fell from grace in America. But apart from dissing the Father of the Country, Paine had also fallen from favor for his most famous work after Common Sense. In 1794, he had published The Age of Reason (Part I), a deist assault on organized religion and the errors of the Bible. In it, Paine had written:
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
After returning to the United States, which owed so much to him, Paine was regarded as an atheist and was abandoned by most of his friends and former allies. He died in disgrace, an outcast from the United States he had helped create. The Quaker church he had rejected refused to bury him after he died in Greenwich Village (New York) in 1809. He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, New York. A handful of people attended his funeral.
An admirer brought this remains back to England for reburial there, but they were lost.
You can read more about Thomas Paine, his relationship with Washington and his ultimate fate in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
While waiting for the arrival of More Deadly Than War (May 15) do check out In The Shadow Of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
•Notable Children’s Books-2017 ALSC/ALA
•A FINALIST for 2017 Award for Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction by YALSA — the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association.
•A selection of the 2018 Tayshas Reading List/Texas Library Association
•Named one of the BEST CHILDREN’S AND YOUNG ADULT BOOKS OF 2016 (Washington Post)
Did you know that many of America’s Founding Fathers—who fought for liberty and justice for all—were slave owners?
Through the powerful stories of five enslaved people who were “owned” by four of our greatest presidents, this book helps set the record straight about the role slavery played in the founding of America. These dramatic narratives explore our country’s great tragedy—that a nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles.
These stories help us know the real people who were essential to the birth of this nation but traditionally have been left out of the history books. Their stories are true—and they should be heard.
Some of the hidden history from IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY
IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY Published by Henry Holt & Co. | On sale September 20, 2016 ISBN: 978-1-62779-311-7 | Hardcover | Ages 10 and up | 304 pages | $17.99
Available in Audio from Penguin Random House
“Who was the last president born in a slave holding household?”
It might seem like a piece of trivia. But the answer is not trivial. President Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28 ,1856, the last of eight presidents born in Virginia. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister who did not own slaves himself. But the house in which Wilson was born was the property of the church Wilson’s father led and slaves came with the house. His father was a leader in the creation of the Southern Presbyterian Church which split from the main body of the church over slavery in 1861. Born Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the 28th was raised in Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina. He later recalled seeing Robert E. Lee as small child.
Wilson was elected in 1912 after one of the most extraordinary campaigns in presidential history. He defeated both the incumbent Republican William Howard Taft and third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt.
-Wilson was the first and to date only president with a Ph.D. He had also served as the President of Princeton before becoming Governor of New Jersey.
-Wilson’s first wife Ellen Louise Wilson died in the White House of “Bright’s disease” (kidney failure) on August 6, 1914.
-Wilson married Edith Galt Wilson on December 18, 1915 in the home of the bride in Washington, D.C. Their engagement and wedding caused some scandal at the time coming only a little more than a year after the death of Wilson’s first wife.
-Edith Galt Wilson accompanied her husband to and from the Capitol at his second inaugural in 1917, establishing a new tradition. It was also the first Inaugural Parade in which women participated.
-Wilson delivered the annual message to Congress (“State of the Union”) to a joint session of Congress in person in 1913, the first time a president had done so since Thomas Jefferson began sending a written message in 1803. He also also established a tradition of regular press conferences.
_While negotiating the Versailles Treaty in France following the end of World War I, Wilson fell ill with the flu. The illness, which may have been “Spanish Influenza,” left him weak and seemed to change Wilson, leading to speculation that the illness affected his decision-making at this crucial moment in history. Read more in More Deadly Than War
-Wilson collapsed on September 25, 1919 and suffered a stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed. His wife, Edith, kept him sequestered in the White House for five weeks, in one of the most serious cases of presidential disability in history. During this time, Edith Wilson served as his “steward,” as she described it, selecting which business he could tend to and making at least one important policy decision.
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is in Staunton, Virginia adjacent to the Woodrow Wilson birthplace.
Now available, this book recounts the story of the most deadly epidemic in modern times, the Spanish Flu pandemic, which struck the world 100 years ago during the last months of World War I. While U.S. doughboys joined the largest offensive in American military history (Meuse-Argonne) that began in late September 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic returned to America with devastating virulence and violence. It is an unforgettable story that has been forgotten.
The book and audio versions are available for preorder and links to online sellers can be found here.
Davis (In the Shadow of Liberty) immediately sets the urgent tone of his forthright chronicle, citing staggering statistics: the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in spring 1918 claimed the lives of more than 675,000 Americans in a single year and left a worldwide death toll estimated at 100 million. The author structures his exhaustive account of the origins, transmission, and consequences of the pandemic within the framework of WWI, underscoring the lethal concurrence of these “twin catastrophes.”
Invisible. Incurable. Unstoppable.
From bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis comes a fascinating account of the Spanish influenza pandemic that swept the world from 1918 to 1919.
With 2018 marking the centennial of the worst disease outbreak in modern history, the story of the Spanish flu is more relevant today than ever. This dramatic narrative, told through the stories and voices of the people caught in the deadly maelstrom, explores how this vast, global epidemic was intertwined with the horrors of World War I – and how it could happen again. Complete with photographs, period documents, modern research, and firsthand reports by medical professionals and survivors, this book provides captivating insight into a catastrophe that transformed America in the early twentieth century.
Listen to a sample of the Audio version coming from Penguin Random House Audio.
I hope you will also read my previous book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY.
The 2018 Winter Solstice arrives today, December 21, 2018. So ’tis a perfect day to talk about the real “reason for the season.”
And here’s the real first Christmas question: Why all the fuss over December 25?
For starters, the Gospels never mention a precise date or even a season for the birth of Jesus. How then did we settle on December 25 and all those festive lights?
If a bright light just went off in your head, you’re getting warm. It’s largely about the Sun.
In ancient times, a popular Roman festival celebrated Saturnalia, a Thanksgiving-like holiday marking the winter solstice and honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Saturnalia began on December 17th and while it only lasted two days at first, it was eventually extended into a weeklong period that lost its agricultural significance and simply became a time of general merriment. Even slaves were given temporary freedom to do as they pleased, while the Romans feasted, visited one another, lit candles and gave gifts. Later it was changed to honor the official Roman Sun god known as Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) and the solstice fell on December 25.
Two other important pagan gods popular in ancient Rome were also celebrated around this date. The Roman were big on adopting the gods of the people they conquered. Mithra, a Persian god of light who was first popular among Roman soldiers, acquired a large cult in ancient Rome. The birth of Attis, another agricultural god from Asia Minor, was also celebrated on December 25. Attis dies but is brought back to life by his lover, a goddess whose temple later became the site of an important basilica honoring the Virgin Mary. By the way, the symbol of Attis was a pine tree.
Candles. Gift giving. Pine trees. Dying gods brought back to life. Hmmm. Sound familiar?
All the similarities between Saturnalia and these other Roman holidays and the celebration of Christmas are no coincidence. In the fourth century, Pope Julius 1 assigned December 25 as the day to celebrate the Mass of Christ’s birth –Christ’s mass. This was a clever marketing ploy that conveniently sidestepped the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday while converting the population.
There is a scholarly argument that the December 25 date was marked earlier in some Christian communities, as argued by Yale Divinity school Dean Andrew McGowan. But the official recognition by the Pope cemented the date for many Christians. In other Christian communities, January 6 –the Epiphany, or the day the magi visited the infant Jesus– was considered more significant. The period between these dates also accounts for the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Other authorities disagree and say that December date was arrived at by adding nine months to March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, the day of Jesus’s miraculous conception.
But most modern Christmas traditions reflect the merger of pagan rituals, beliefs, and traditions with Christianity. The early church fathers knew that they couldn’t convert people without allowing them to keep some of their ancient festivals and rituals so they would allow them if they could be connected to Christianity.
The importance of the winter solstice, then, is crucial to understanding many of the other traditions of this season. Evergreen trees, mistletoe, holly, and Yule logs all relate back to pre-Christian practices and symbols that celebrate the return of light and life after the Solstice. That’s why the Puritans rejected Christmas celebrations under Cromwell and in the Massachusetts colony in 1659. (Read my post Who Started the War on Christmas?“)
While we are talking about dates, the precise year of the birth of Jesus is also a mystery. The dating system we use is based on a system devised by a monk around 1500 years ago and is seriously flawed. The historical King Herod who ordered the massacre of the innocents died in 4 BC (or BCE, Before the Common Era). The “census” ordered by Emperor Augustine is not recorded in Roman history, but a local census did take place in the Roman province of Judea in 6 AD (or CE, the Common Era). Is that all perfectly clear now?
You can read more about the mythic roots of Christmas and the gospel accounts of Jesus in Don’t Know Much About Mythology and Don’t Know Much About the Bible.
(Revision of post first published 12.11.2103)
It’s that time of year. Cue the lights, decorations, music.… and the “War on Christmas.”
Proclaiming a secular assault on the religious significance of the holiday has become a seasonal staple, just like the Macy’s Parade with Santa Claus. Saying “Merry Christmas” became a 2016 campaign talking point and it has been a staple of conservative talk show hosts for years.
The basic premise: Christmas is under attack by Grinchy atheists and secular humanists who want to remove any vestige of Christianity from the public space. Any criticism of public displays devoted to religious symbols –mangers, crosses, stars — is seen by these folks as part of a wider attack on “Christian values” in America. Mass market retailers who substituted “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” are part of the conspiracy to “ruin Christmas.”
But in fact, most religious displays are not banned. Courts simply direct that one religion cannot be favored over another under the Constitutional protections of the First Amendment. Christmas displays are generally permitted as long as menorahs, Kwanzaa displays, and other seasonal symbols are also allowed.
In other words, the “War on Christmas” is pretty much a phony war. But where did this all start?
The first laws against Christmas celebrations and festivities in America came during the 1600s –from the same wonderful folks who brought you the Salem Witch Trials — the Puritans. (By the way, H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as the fear that “somewhere someone may be happy.”)
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
–From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659
The Founding Fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not a festive bunch. To them, Christmas was a debauched, wasteful festival that threatened their core religious beliefs. They understood that most of the trappings of Christmas –like holly and mistletoe– were vestiges of ancient pagan rituals. More importantly, they thought Christmas — the mass of Christ– was too “popish,” by which they meant Roman Catholic. These are the people who banned Catholic priests from Boston under penalty of death.
This sensibility actually began over the way in which Christmas was celebrated in England. Oliver Cromwell, a strict Puritan who took over England in 1645, believed it was his mission to cleanse the country of the sort of seasonal moral decay that Protestant writer Philip Stubbes described in the 1500s:
‘More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’
In 1644, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations. Attending mass was forbidden. Under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, mince pies, holly and other popular customs fell victim to the Puritan mission to remove all merrymaking during the Christmas period. To Puritans, the celebration of the Lord’s birth should be day of fasting and prayer.
In England, the Puritan War on Christmas lasted until 1660. In Massachusetts, the ban remained in place until 1687.
So if the conservative broadcasters and religious folk really want a traditional, American Christian Christmas, the solution is simple — don’t have any fun.
Read more about the Puritans in Don’t Know Much About® History and America’s Hidden History. The history behind Christmas is also told in Don’t Know Much About® The Bible.
Like the Macy’s parade, here is my Thanksgiving tradition. I post two articles about the holiday that I wrote for the New York Times.
The first, from 2008, is called “A French Connection” and tells the story of the real first Pilgrims in America. They were French. In Florida. Fifty years before the Mayflower sailed. It did not end with a happy meal. In fact, it ended in a religious massacre.
TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux. After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the “New World” were French. And they beat their English counterparts by 50 years. That French settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise Americans raised on our foundational myth, but the record is clear.
The complete story can be found in America’s Hidden History.
The second is “How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving” (2014) and tells the story of the Union League providing Thanksgiving dinners to Union troops.
Of all the bedtime-story versions of American history we teach, the tidy Thanksgiving pageant may be the one stuffed with the heaviest serving of myth. This iconic tale is the main course in our nation’s foundation legend, complete with cardboard cutouts of bow-carrying Native American cherubs and pint-size Pilgrims in black hats with buckles. And legend it largely is.
In fact, what had been a New England seasonal holiday became more of a “national” celebration only during the Civil War, with Lincoln’s proclamation calling for “a day of thanksgiving” in 1863.
Enjoy them both. Now for some football.
“The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
(This is a revised version of a post originally written for Veterans Day in 2011. The meaning still applies.)
On Veterans Day, a reminder of what the day once meant and what it should still mean.
That was the moment at which World War I –then called THE GREAT WAR– largely came to end in 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
One of the most tragically senseless and destructive periods in all history came to a close in Western Europe with the Armistice –or end of hostilities between Germany and the Allied nations — that began at that moment. Some 20 million people had died in the fighting that raged for more than four years since August 1914. The formal end of the war came with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
Besides the war casualties, an estimated 100 million people died during the war of the Spanish flu, a worldwide pandemic that was completely linked to the war and had an impact on its outcome. That is the subject of my recent book, More Deadly Than War:The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War.
The date of November 11th became a national holiday of remembrance in many of the victorious allied nations –a day to commemorate the loss of so many lives in the war. And in the United States, President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. A few years later, in 1926, Congress passed a resolution calling on the President to observe each November 11th as a day of remembrance:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
Of course, the hopes that “the war to end all wars” would bring peace were short-lived. By 1939, Europe was again at war and what was once called “the Great War” would become World War I. With the end of World War II, there was a movement in America to rename Armistice Day and create a holiday that recognized the veterans of all of America’s conflicts. President Eisenhower signed that law in 1954. (In 1971, Veterans Day began to be marked as a Monday holiday on the third Monday in November, but in 1978, the holiday was returned to the traditional November 11th date).
Today, Veterans Day honors the duty, sacrifice and service of America’s nearly 25 million veterans of all wars, unlike Memorial Day, which specifically honors those who died fighting in America’s wars.
We should remember and celebrate all those men and women. But lost in that worthy goal is the forgotten meaning of this day in history –the meaning which Congress gave to Armistice Day in 1926:
to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations …
inviting the people of the United States to observe the day … with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
The Library of Congress offers an extensive Veterans History Project.
The Veterans Administration website offers more resources on teaching about Veterans Day.
Read more about World War I and all of America’s conflicts in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
I discuss the role of Americans in battle in more than 240 years of American history in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (Hachette Books and Random House Audio). My forthcoming book, MORE DEADLY THAN WAR: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War will be published in May 2018.
It was a parade like none Philadelphia had ever seen.
In the summer of 1918, as the Great War raged and American doughboys fell on Europe’s killing fields, the City of Brotherly Love organized a grand spectacle. To bolster morale and support the war effort, a procession for the ages brought together marching bands, Boy Scouts, women’s auxiliaries, and uniformed troops to promote Liberty Loans –government bonds issued to pay for the war. The day would be capped off with a concert led by the “March King” himself –John Philip Sousa.
The city sought to sell Liberty Loans, bonds to pay for the war effort, while bringing its citizens together during the infamous pandemic.
Read the complete article: “Philadelphia Threw a WWI Parade That Gave Thousands of Onlookers the Flu” from Smithsonian Magazine
Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/philadelphia-threw-wwi-parade-gave-thousands-onlookers-flu-180970372/#PDvkkSkd9ErAFaz4.99
(Video directed and produced by Colin Davis; originally posted October 2015)
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.