March 16 marks the anniversary of the birth of America’s fourth President, James Madison, also known as “The Father of the Constitution.”
While small in stature, and sometimes overshadowed by his more famous Virginian predecessors, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Madison is generally considered one of the greatest of the Founding Fathers for the breadth and influence of his contributions. Like many of the Founders, Madison had reservations about slavery as a contradiction to this ideals, but did little to end the institution. He hoped that slavery would end after the foreign trade was abolished and thought that enslaved African-Americans should be emancipated and returned to Africa.
James Madison was born on March 16, 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia. The son of a tobacco planter, he chose the unusual course of going north to study at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). There he came under the influence of the college President, John Witherspoon, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence, and made a friend of fellow student, young Aaron Burr, son of the College’s founder.
Returning to Virginia, Madison became involved in patriot politics and became a close colleague of his neighbor Thomas Jefferson, serving as Jefferson’s adviser and confidant during the war years while Jefferson was Governor of Virginia.
In 1794, he married the widow Dolley Payne Todd, having been formally introduced by his college friend Aaron Burr.
A few Madison Highlights–
•Secured passage of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), an act that is a cornerstone of religious freedom in America. As part of that effort, he wrote the influential Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. (I discuss the “Remonstrance” in my article “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance” in the October 2010 Smithsonian.)
•Was the moving force behind the Constitutional Convention and was one of the principal authors of the Constitution. Madison’s support of the electoral system is laid out in this essay by Yale professor Akhil Reed Amar “The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists.”
•With Alexander Hamilton and John Jay was one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, arguments in favor of the ratification of the Constitution
•Was principal author of the Bill of Rights, which he originally thought unnecessary
Following ratification of the Constitution, Madison was a member of the House of Representatives from Virginia and a powerful Congressional ally of George Washington.
•Drafted the first version of Washington’s Farewell Address
•Supervised the Louisiana Purchase as Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State
•Presided over the ill-prepared nation during the War of 1812, the “second war of independence”
I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. –June 16, 1788
Madison died on June 28, 1836 at Montpelier, at age 85. Enslaved servant Paul Jennings was at his bedside and later recalled in a memoir that Madison died, “as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.”
James Madison is buried at Montpelier.
The story of Paul Jennings, who was enslaved by Madison and wrote a memoir of working as a servant in the White House, is told in my recent book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY.
The Library of Congress Resource Collection on James Madison.
Madison’s Major Papers and Inaugural Addresses can be found at the Avalon Project of the Yale Law School.
(March 15, 2021: Revision of original post of March 15, 2014. Video created and directed by Colin Davis.)
Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, was born on March 15, 1767.
His birthplace was a cabin on the border of both South and North Carolina (the precise location is uncertain).
When this was last posted, he had fallen from favor and was going to be moved to the back side of the $20 in favor of Harriet Tubman. That decision was shelved by the previous administration and is back on track under the Biden administration.
In his day and ever since, Andrew Jackson provoked 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.
The video above offers a quick overview of Weatherford’s war with Jackson that ultimately led the demise of the Creek nation.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.
On August 9, 1814, Major General Andrew Jackson signed the Treaty of Fort Jackson ending the Creek War. The agreement provided for the surrender of twenty-three million acres of Creek land to the United States. This vast territory encompassed more than half of present-day Alabama and part of southern Georgia.
The complete story of the Red Creek War is told in my book A Nation Rising.
Andrew Jackson died on June 8, 1845. He was surrounded by many of the household servants he had enslaved. He told them:
“I want all to prepare to meet me in heaven….Christ has no respect to color.”
The story of one of those people, Alfred Jackson, is told in my recent book, In the Shadow of Liberty. Alfred Jackson is buried in the garden at the Hermitage, near Andrew Jackson’s gravesite.
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.
Andrew Jackson “Second Annual Message to Congress” (December 16, 1830)
[Read more about Andrew Jackson in this post.]
The benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly 30 years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation….
Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself, or would go further in attempting to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy, prosperous people. I have endeavored to impress upon them my own solemn convictions of the duties and powers of the General Government in relation to the State authorities. For the justice of the laws passed by the States within the scope of their reserved powers they are not responsible to this Government. As individuals we may entertain and express our opinions of their acts, but as a Government we have as little right to control them as we have to prescribe laws for other nations….
The present policy of the Government is but a continuation of the same progressive change by a milder process. The tribes which occupied the countries now constituting the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites. The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the westward, and we now propose to acquire the countries occupied by the red men of the South and West by a fair exchange, and, at the expense of the United States, to send them to a land where their existence may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual.
Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers; but what do they more than our ancestors did or than our children are now doing? ….
The Indian Removal Act was signed into law by Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830. It gave the president authority to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders.
“A few tribes went peacefully, but many resisted the relocation policy. During the fall and winter of 1838 and 1839, the Cherokees were forcibly moved west by the United States government. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees died on this forced march, which became known as the ‘Trail of Tears.'”
On February 21, 1972, President Richard Nixon arrived in China in what may be the most important presidential trip in history. His eventual meeting with Mao Zedong and the Communist party leadership of China changed modern history. The full story is told in Strongman.
STRONGMAN: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy published on October 6, 2020
A pitch-perfect balance of nuanced reflection and dire warning.”
STRONGMAN tells the story of the rise to power of five of the most deadly dictators of the 20th century — Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein.
A review in Booklist says, “Davis does not sugarcoat his material, inviting long thoughts with his assertion that this is a decidedly human story that points to real people as evidence that evil exists in this troubled world.”
In addition to telling how these men took unlimited power, brought one-party rule to their nations, and were responsible for the deaths of millions of people, the book offers a brief history of Democracy and discusses the present threat to democratic institutions around the world.
In a time when Democracy is under assault across the globe, it is more important than ever to understand how a Strongman takes power and how quickly democracy can vanish –even as millions cheer its death.
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR STRONGMAN
“I found myself engrossed in it from beginning to end. I could not help admiring Davis’s ability to explain complex ideas in readable prose that never once discounted the intelligence of young readers. It is very much a book for our time.”
—Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education & History, Stanford University, author of Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).
“Strongman is a book that is both deeply researched and deeply felt, both an alarming warning and a galvanizing call to action, both daunting and necessary to read and discuss.”
—Cynthia Levinson, author of Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws That Affect Us Today
“A wake-up call to democracies like ours: we are not immune to despots . . . Strongman demonstrates that democracy is not permanent, unless it is collectively upheld. This book shakes that immortality narrative.”
—Jessica Ellison, President of the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies; Teacher Education Specialist, Minnesota Historical Society
Rarely does a history book take such an unflinching look at our common future, where the very presence of democracy is less than certain; even rarer is a history book in which the author’s moral convictions incite young readers to civic engagement; rarest of all, a history book as urgent, as impassioned, and as timely as Kenneth C. Davis’ Strongman.
—Eugene Yelchin, author of the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose.
NEWS of STRONGMAN – This book is a selection of the Junior Library Guild.
(Post revised 2/19/2021)
On this date- February 19, 1942 – a different kind of infamy
Franklin D. Roosevelt famously told Americans when he was inaugurated in 1933:
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
But on February 19, 1942 –a little more than two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor— President Roosevelt allowed America’s fear to provoke him into an action regarded among his worst mistakes. He issued Executive Order 9066.
It declared certain areas to be “exclusion zones” from which the military could remove anyone for security reasons. It provided the legal groundwork for the eventual relocation of approximately 120,000 people to a variety of detention centers —“internment camps” — around the country, the largest forced relocation in American history. Nearly two-thirds of them were American citizens.
The attitude of many Americans at the time was expressed in a Los Angeles Times editorial of the period:
“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched… So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere… notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…” (Source: Impounded, p. 53)
On March 23, 1942, the United States government began taking away the liberty of more than one hundred thousand people–the Japanese Americans viewed as a threat after Pearl Harbor. On that date, the U.S. Army began removing people of Japanese descent from Los Angeles. (Smaller numbers of Americans of German and Italian descent were also detained.)offers an excellent overview of the order and its impact.
(Earlier post updated 2/12/2021)
So What Day Is it After All?
Okay. We all do it. It’s printed on calendars and posted in bank windows. We mistakenly call the third Monday in February Presidents Day, in part because of all those commercials in which George Washington swings his legendary ax and “Rail-splitter” Abe Lincoln hoists his ax to chop down prices on everything from mattresses and linens to SUVs.
But, this February holiday is officially still George Washington’s Birthday –federally speaking that is.
The official designation of the federal holiday observed on the third Monday of February was, and still is, Washington’s Birthday.
But Washington’s Birthday has become widely known as Presidents Day (or President’s Day, or Presidents’ Day). The popular usage and confusion resulted from the merging of what had been two widely celebrated Presidential birthdays in February —Lincoln’s on February 12th, which was never a federal holiday– and Washington’s on February 22, which was.
Created under the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which gave us three-day weekend Monday holidays, the federal holiday on the third Monday in February is technically still Washington’s Birthday. But here’s the rub: the holiday can never land on Washington’s true birthday because the latest date it can fall is February 21, as it did in 2011.
There is a wealth of information about the First President at his home Mount Vernon.
Read More About the creation of the Presidency, Washington, his life and administration in DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT® THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS. Washington’s role in the American Revolution is highlighted Chapter One of THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR.
And George Washington’s role as a slaveowner is fully explored in IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.
(Updated post: January 29, 2021)
America’s Poet, Robert Frost, died on January 29, 1963, in Boston. After his death, an unsigned editorial in the The New York Times, entitled “Ending in Wisdom,” noted:
Robert Frost was more than America’s best-known poet. He was a national figure, almost an institution, a man who went up and down the land saying his poems wherever, it sometimes seemed, two or three Americans were gathered together. He spoke in the language of the common man.
This is a brief video tribute to Robert Frost. (Originally published August 2009; video edited and created by Colin Davis. One correction: I no longer have a home in Vermont mentioned in the video, but have not lost my admiration for 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 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.
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.
This material is adapted from Don’t Know Much About Literature written in collaboration with Jenny Davis.
As the world prepares to mark “International Holocaust Remembrance Day” on January 27, it is a reminder that the date marks the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps by Soviet forces. And that is another grim reminder of what the Nuremberg Trials were about.
The Nuremberg Trials — A Don’t Know Much About® Audiominute
75 years ago on November 20, 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, the first trials of Nazi war criminals began. This military tribunal, the Nuremberg Trials, as they came to be known, was convened by the four victorious Allies—Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Listen to this audiominute.
That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.
What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power.
-United States Prosecutor Robert Jackson, Opening Statement (11/22/1945)
This is a timeline of the Nuremberg Trials from the Robert H. Jackson Center.
These resources on the Nuremberg Trials are from the Library of Congress.
(Originally posted on 1/24/2013; revised 1/24/2021)
You may have been assigned to read Ethan Frome in high school. Or you have read or seen the grand dramas of New York Society, House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence. That’s how you know the name Edith Wharton.
Born in New York City, January 24, 1862: Edith Newbold Jones, who achieved fame as Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 (for The Age of Innocence).
But the other lesser-known aspect of Wharton’s life is her experience in France during World War I, where she founded hospitals and refugee centers for women and children.
Romance, scandal and ruin among New York socialites—long before this was the stuff of People, and “Gossip Girl,” it was the subject matter for Edith Wharton’s most famous works. In such novels as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton painted detailed, acid portraits of high society life. In doing so, she created heartbreaking conflicts beneath the façade of wealth and manners. Again and again, characters like Newland Archer and Lily Bart were forced to choose between conforming to social expectations and pursuing true love and happiness. Her most famous work set outside the realm of high-tone New York was Ethan Frome (1911), set in wintry, rural Massachusetts.
Wharton had spent years in Europe as a child and teenager. But she moved to France in 1910 while war in Europe was on the horizon and her marriage to socialite Teddy Wharton deteriorated.
Once the war broke out, she also wrote urging the United States to join the war. Then she saw the hardship caused as the fighting that tore across Europe starting in August 1914 created masses of refugees.
American novelist Edith Wharton set up workshops for women all over Paris, making clothes for hospitals as well as lingerie for a fashionable clientele. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for refugees and tuberculosis sufferers and ran a rescue committee for the children of Flanders, whose towns were bombarded by the Germans. Her friend and fellow author Henry James called her the “great generalissima”.
Source: Radio France International: “Edith Wharton-The American novelist who joined France’s WWI effort”
She started in her neighborhood with sewing workshops that eventually employed more than 800 women, opened hostels for tuberculosis patients and refugee children, hosted benefit concerts, sent dispatches from the war front.
In the first year of her work, her Children of Flanders Rescue Committee could record:
Refugees assisted: 9,229
Meals served: 235,000
Refugees for whom employment has been found: 3,400
Garments distributed: 48,333
For her wartime work, in 1916 Wharton was awarded France’s highest decoration – a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.
Think you know your Wharton? Try this quick quiz–
TRUE or FALSE (Quiz adapted from Don’t Know Much About® Literature, written with Jenny Davis. Answers below)
1. Edith Wharton wrote about wealthy New Yorkers to escape the poverty of her own upbringing.
2. Though Edith Wharton was unhappily married, she could not get divorced because it was socially unacceptable.
3. In addition to her fiction, Wharton published several books on interior decorating and landscaping.
The Mount is Wharton’s restored home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
The Edith Wharton Collection of manuscripts, correspondence and photographs is housed at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
1. FALSE. Wharton was born to wealthy New Yorkers, and summered in Newport, Rhode Island. She grew up traveling through Europe, and was educated by private tutors. After an official debut into society, she married a rich banker twelve years her senior.
2. FALSE. She divorced Teddy Wharton in 1913.
3. TRUE. Her first book was The Decoration of Houses, establishing her fame as a writer. She also wrote about Italian landscaping and architecture in Italian Villas and Their Gardens, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.
[Repost; originally posted 7/26/2013]
Today (January 22, 2021), Lloyd Austin III, a retired general, was confirmed by the Senate as defense secretary, becoming the the first Black Pentagon chief.
This historic landmark is a reminder that on July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an Executive Order that ended official discrimination in the United States military.
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.
Coming in an election year, it was a daring move by Truman, who still needed the support of southern segregationists. It was also a controversial decision that led to the forced retirement of the Secretary of the Army when he refused to desegregate the Army.
As historical documents go, “Executive Order 9981” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Emancipation Proclamation” or “New Deal.” But when President Harry S. Truman issued this Executive Order, he helped transform the country. This order began the gradual official process of desegregating America’s armed forces, which was a groundbreaking step for the American civil rights movement.
It is worth noting that many of the arguments made at the time against integration of the armed services — unit cohesion, morale of the troops, discipline in the ranks– were also made about the question of homosexuals serving in the military, a policy effectively ended when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was overturned in 2011.
In a Defense Department history of the integration of the Armed Forces, Brigadier General James Collins Jr. wrote in 1980:
The integration of the armed forces was a momentous event in our military and national history…. The experiences in World War II and the postwar pressures generated by the civil rights movement compelled all the services –Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps — to reexamine their traditional practices of segregation. While there were differences in the ways that the services moved toward integration, all were subject to the same demands, fears, and prejudices and had the same need to use their resources in a more rational and economical way. All of them reached the same conclusion: traditional attitudes toward minorities must give way to democratic concepts of civil rights.
Here is the text of the Executive Order 9981 (Source: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum; dated July 26, 1948)