Don't Know Much

Juneteenth: The “Other” Independence Day

[June 14, 2024: Revise of a post first published June 2015]

Wednesday June 19, 2024 will mark “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” On Thursday, June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a Juneteenth holiday into law.

Since then, the subject of American History and the role slavery played in the nation’s past–and present–have become an ugly partisan issue. As various states, governors, other politicians, and commentators attempt to diminish the place of slavery in American History, we cannot allow an erasure or whitewashing of this stain on the nation’s soul.

That is why celebrating and understanding “Juneteenth” is more important that ever. We cannot allow it to become just another holiday with sales falling between Memorial Day and July 4th.

The official Juneteenth Committee in East Woods Park, Austin, Texas on June 19, 1900. (Courtesy Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

I have been writing and speaking about Juneteenth for many years. And I must admit when I wrote about the origins of the event back in 2011 in Smithsonian and again in a New York Times oped in 2015, I honestly did not envision a day when this celebration of freedom would become a federal holiday. So for those still uncertain, here is the background.

Each year, JUNE 19 is a day to mark “Juneteenth” –a holiday celebrating emancipation at the end of the Civil War in 1865. The word, formed from “June” and “nineteenth,” is a portmanteau –one word formed from two, like “brunch” (breakfast and lunch). It marks the date that a Union Army general informed the enslaved people of Texas that they were free.

“SOME two months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger steamed into the port of Galveston, Tex. With 1,800 Union soldiers, including a contingent of United States Colored Troops, Granger was there to establish martial law over the westernmost state in the defeated Confederacy.

“On June 19, two days after his arrival and 150 years ago today, Granger stood on the balcony of a building in downtown Galveston and read General Order No. 3 to the assembled crowd below. ‘The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,’ he pronounced.”

Read more of the complete story of Juneteenth in my 2015 New York Times Op-ed, “Juneteenth is for Everyone”.

TO the emancipated people of Texas, the day would be celebrated as “Juneteenth,” a festive holiday marking liberation. It would become a widely shared day of picnics, barbecue, singing, and joy in the African-American community, gradually spreading across the former Confederacy and eventually moving north.

I believe that we have two histories in this country — one white, one black — and they have largely been separate and unequal. The story of Juneteenth is a perfect example of how one of these histories has largely been hidden when we teach American history.

For centuries, slavery was the dark stain on America’s soul, the deep contradiction to the nation’s founding ideals of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and “All men are created equal.”

When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he took a huge step toward erasing that stain. But the full force of his proclamation would not be realized until June 19, 1865—Juneteenth, as it was called by enslaved people in Texas freed that day.

“Juneteenth: Our Other Independence Day” My article in Smithsonian (June 15, 2011)

The question of how we teach and talk about enslavement is also the subject of my article in Social Education, the Journal of the National Council for the Social Studies. (NCSS). Read: The American Contradiction: Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles.

Foods on the Juneteenth altar include beets, strawberries, watermelon, yams and hibiscus tea, as well as a plate of black-eyed peas and cornbread. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

So how will you celebrate?

The holiday and its rich food traditions are highlighted in these New York Times articles: “Building a Juneteenth Menu for the 21st Century” and “Hot Links and Red Drinks”. 

The World in Books-Coming in October 2024

I am very excited to announce the publication of my latest work:


52 Works of Great Short Nonfiction

First Trade review from Kirkus Reviews

“A wealth of succinct, entertaining advice.” Full review


Coming from Scribner Books on October 8, 2024. Read more and preorder copies here.


More advance Praise for The World in Books:

“Kenneth C. Davis’s The World in Books is a testament to both the beauty and power of the written word. And also, a very smart guide to books that have changed the way we think – and sometimes even changed us.”

–Deborah Blum, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century and the bestseller, The Poisoner’s Handbook.


“In his accessible, well-written, and unanticipatedly humorous The World in Books, Kenneth C. Davis takes readers on a journey that highlights fifty-two short yet provocative works of non-fiction. Highlighting both traditional favorites and contemporary classics, Davis offers his sharp insights in ways that appeal to the inquisitive mind, regardless of its familiarity with the selected texts.  His poignant “Introduction” sets the stage for the contemporary relevance of why books like these matter in contemporary times, which makes this collection all the more relevant. Highly recommended for every person who treasures the freedom to read and values the transformative power it has for us all.

Dr. J. Michael Butler, Kenan Distinguished Professor of History, Flagler College and author of Beyond Integration

What a “Year of Reading–Briefly” looks like….

What a year of reading--briefly-- looks like

Photo credit Kenneth C. Davis

Among the 52 titles I have included are The Epic of Gilgamesh, Genesis, the poetry of Sappho, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and such profoundly influential writers as Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Helen Keller, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, and Timothy Snyder.

The essential message of this book is that books matter–now more than ever. We must continue to educate ourselves. I believe that Open Books Open Minds.

I look forward to talking about this book in the coming months and sharing my fundamental belief that books can change us and the world.

In the meantime, please read and enjoy Great Short Books: A Year of Reading–Briefly

Posted on May 27, 2024 Comment Share:

GREAT SHORT BOOKS: A Year of Reading–Briefly




Scribner/Simon & Schuster and Simon Audio (Unabridged audio download)

An exciting guide to all that the world of fiction has to offer in 58 short novels — from ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’ to the contemporary fiction of Colson Whitehead and Leïla Slimani — that, ‘like a first date,’ offer pleasure and excitement without commitment.” New York Times Book Review

Booklist “Editors’ Choice Adult Books 2022″

“…The most exceptional of the best books of 2022 reviewed in Booklist…”

“Delightfully accessible, Great Short Books: A Year of Reading–Briefly presents 58 fact-filled reviews of short books, a smorgasbord of titles sure to entice readers.” –Cheryl McKeon, Shelf Awareness

“I consider Davis’ ‘Great Short Books’ a gift to readers, a true treasure trove of literary recommendations.” —Sue Gilmore, SFGate

“Anyone who’s eternally time-strapped will treasure Kenneth C. Davis’ Great Short Books. This nifty volume highlights 58 works of fiction chosen by Davis for their size (small) and impact (enormous). Each brisk read weighs in at around 200 pages but has the oomph of an epic.” —Bookpage Full Review

“An entertaining journey with a fun, knowledgeable guide…. “ Kirkus Reviews

“A must-purchase for public and school libraries.” ALA Booklist


“Davis feels that novels of 200 pages or less often don’t get the recognition they deserve, and this delightful book is the remedy…A must-purchase for public and school libraries.” *Starred Booklist review

“An entertaining journey with a fun, knowledgeable guide…. His love of books and reading shines through. From 1759 (Candide) to 2019 (The Nickel Boys), he’s got you covered.” –Kirkus Reviews
Full KIRKUS review here

“Davis’s conversational tone makes him a great guide to these literary aperitifs. This is sure to leave book lovers with something new to add to their lists.” FULL PUBLISHERS WEEKLY REVIEW here

During the lock-down, I swapped doom-scrolling for the insight and inspiration that come from reading great fiction. Inspired by  Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” and its brief tales told during a pandemic, I read 58 great short novels –not as an escape but an antidote.

“A short novel is like a great first date. It can be extremely pleasant, even exciting, and memorable. Ideally, you leave wanting more. It can lead to greater possibilities. But there is no long-term commitment.”

–From “Notes of a Common Reader,” the Introduction to Great Short Books

Read “The Antidote to Everything,” an excerpt from the Introduction published on Lit Hub

The result is a compendium that goes from “Candide” to Colson Whitehead, and Edith Wharton to Leïla Slimani. And yes, Maus and many other Banned Books and Writers.

What “A Year of Reading–Briefly” looks like

Voltaire in Great Short Books
Art © Sam Kerr

Edith Wharton in Great Short Books
Art © Sam Kerr

Advance Praise for Great Short Books: A Year of Reading—Briefly

“GREAT SHORT BOOKS is a fascinating, thoughtful, and inspiring guide to a marvelous form of literature: the short novel. You can dip into this book anywhere you like, but I found myself reading it cover-to-cover, delighting in discovering new works while also revisiting many of my favorites. GREAT SHORT BOOKS is itself a great book—for those who are over-scheduled but want to expand their reading and for those who will simply delight in spending time with a passionate fellow reader who on every page reminds us why we need and love to read.”

–Will Schwalbe, New York Times bestselling author of THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB

“This is the book that you didn’t know you really needed. I began digging into this book as soon as I got it, and it was such a delight to read beautiful prose, just a sip at a time, with Kenneth Davis’ notes to give me context and help me more fully appreciate the stories. Keep this book near your bed or on your coffee table. It will be read and loved.

–Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of WE NEED TO TALK and SPEAKING OF RACE

Recording audio book of Great Short Books (Sept. 2022) Photo by Katherine Cook

From hard-boiled fiction to magical realism, the 18th century to the present day, Great Short Books spans genres, cultures, countries, and time to present a diverse selection of acclaimed and canonical novels—plus a few bestsellers. Like browsing in your favorite bookstore, this eclectic compendium is a fun and practical book for any passionate reader hoping to broaden their collection— or anyone who is looking for an entertaining, effortless reentry into reading.

Listen to a sample of the audio book of Great Short Books

And Indie booksellers weigh in:

“Need something grand, something classic, uh…. something short to read, but don’t know where to start? Check out Kenneth Davis’s guide to Great Short Books and you’ll soon find just the right tale to delight your literary palate. For each suggestion, Davis gives us first lines, a plot summary, an author’s bio, a reason for reading it, and, finally, what you should read next from the author’s canon. Pick up a copy… you’ll be glad you did. You’re welcome!”—Linda Bond, Auntie’s Bookstore (Spokane, WA)

“Kenneth Davis has presented the perfect solution for too many books, not enough time—a collection of exceptional short books perfect for reading in a society seemingly without any free time.  Many of the books may be familiar by name, some are obscure, some even forgotten, but all belong in the canon of superb literature.  He teases with a brief synopsis and explains why each book deserves attention.  An absolutely intriguing bonus is a short biographical sketch of each author, many of whom had fascinating but traumatic lives.  It is the perfect book to provide comfort literature for busy readers.”—Bill Cusumano, Square Books (Oxford, Miss.)



More early reviews from readers at

“GREAT SHORT BOOKS is a wonderful, breezy but deep look at the outstanding short books of the last 150 years. Kenneth C. Davis is a genius at summarizing each book and making the reader want to read said book post haste. This is a book I didn’t know the world needed but the world did.” –Tom O., reviewer

“…an incredibly valuable tool for book clubs and readers everywhere! Some authors/titles are well-known and others will be new discoveries….HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for any book group looking to find new titles or any reader who wants to know what to read next.” –Ann H. reviewer

“I found over a dozen new authors or titles I want to now read that were included in his main list, and the Further Reading at the end of each chapter and at the end of the volume itself.
As others have suggested, this is a great tool for Book Clubs!
Not Lit Crit, it is mostly focused on necessary, just-the-facts-mam information on one person’s reading of short books over a year. Well worth a read, and great for browsing!” –Stephen B., Librarian

“What better way to introduce new readers to more than 50 ‘short’ books. This handy book is full of non-spoiler descriptions and cultural context that situate these stories within our world.” –Kelsey W., librarian

S0urce: Great Short Books via NetGalley

I can’t wait to start talking about this book with readers everywhere.

Teachers, Librarians, Book Clubs and Other Learning Communities:

Invite me for a visit to your school, classroom, library, historical group, book club or conference.

Posted on May 26, 2024 Comment Share:

The Divisive & Partisan History of “Memorial Day”

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Photo: Arlington National Cemetery) This memorial was created after the great losses of World War I.

(Post updated May 20, 2024)

America’s most solemn holiday should be free of rancor. But it never has been.

Army bases honoring Confederates are finally being renamed.  The Confederate Monument in Arlington Cemetery has been removed. A contentious statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond–onetime capital of the Confederacy– has been relocated.  The heated arguments over removing the Confederate flag and monuments to heroes and soldiers of the Confederacy provide reminders of the birth of Memorial Day.

In the Korean War, the U.S. military was integrated. (Source: Library of Congress)

Waterloo, New York claimed that the holiday originated there with a parade and decoration of the graves of fallen soldiers in 1866. But according to the Veterans Administration, at least 25 places stake a claim to the birth of Memorial Day. Among the pack are Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, which says it was first in 1864.( “Many Claim to Be Memorial Day Birthplace” )

And Charleston, South Carolina, according to historian David Blight, points to a parade of emancipated children in May 1865 who decorated the graves of fallen Union soldiers whose remains were moved from a racetrack to a proper cemetery.

Born out of the Civil War’s catastrophic death toll as “Decoration Day,” Memorial Day is a day for honoring our nation’s war dead. A veteran of the Mexican War and the Civil War, John A. Logan, a Congressman and leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, established the first somber commemoration on May 30, 1868, in Arlington Cemetery, the sacred space wrested from property once belonging to Robert E. Lee’s family.( When Memorial Day was No Picnic by James M. McPherson.) The Grand Army of the Republic was a powerful fraternal organization formed of Civil War Union veterans and Logan issued  “General Order N.11” calling for a day to decorate the graves of the fallen Union soldiers with flowers.

What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.

Abraham Lincoln (November 1863) Photo by Alexander Gardner

From its inception, Decoration Day (later Memorial Day) was linked to  “Yankee” losses in the cause of emancipation. Calling for the first formal Decoration Day, Union General John Logan wrote,  “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains…”

In other words, Logan’s first Decoration Day was divisive— a partisan affair, organized by northerners.

In 1871, Frederick Douglass gave a Memorial Day speech in Arlington that focused on this division:

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.


But the question remains: what inspired Logan to call for this rite of decorating soldier’s graves with fresh flowers?

The simple answer is—his wife.

After the war, while visiting Petersburg, Virginia – which fell to General Grant in 1865 after a deadly, year-long  siege – Mary Logan learned about the city’s women who had formed a Ladies’ Memorial Association. Their aim was to show admiration  “…for those who died defending homes and loved ones.”

Choosing June 9th, the anniversary of “The Battle of the Old Men and the Young Boys” fought in 1864, a teacher had taken her students to the city’s cemetery to decorate the graves of the fallen.

General Logan’s wife wrote to him about the practice. Soon after, he ordered a day of remembrance. Despite all the other claims of credit –which are somewhat besides the point– Petersburg’s celebration inspired the “first” Decoration Day.

The teacher and her students, it is worth noting, had placed flowers and flags on both Union and Confederate graves.As America wages its partisan wars at full pitch, this may be a lesson for us all.

More resources at the New York Times Topics archive of Memorial Day articles

The story of “The Battle of the Old Men and the Young Boys” is told in  THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR (Now in paperback)

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Don’t Know Much About Memorial Day

(Post updated May 20, 2024)

Some governors would have us teach “the basics.” So here goes:

LET’S SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT— Memorial Day is about Slavery

It is not about swimsuit sales, the start of summer, or the hot dogs on the barbie.

Memorial Day, the most solemn occasion on the national calendar now honors the nation’s war dead. But it was born out of the the Civil War, which was fought because of slavery, America’s original sin. Memorial Day is about a nation “conceived in liberty” but born in shackles.

In these fraught times, when teaching history has become so contentious, we must tell it straight when we observe the history behind the holiday. Here are some basic facts:

1) Memorial Day was conceived as Decoration Day, first marked in May 30, 1868 by a proclamation of General John Logan, leader of a powerful Civil War veterans group. His original proclamation –“General Orders, No. 11”– read, in part: “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.”

The day was an occasion for visiting the cemetery and decorating the graves of fallen Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.

2)  The Civil War was fought over slavery. The “states rights” argument was put forward by “Lost Cause” apologists and eventually accepted by educators who wanted to diminish the significant role of slavery both in American history and in bringing about the war.

The Hidden History of America At War (paperback)

Read more about the divisive history of Memorial Day in an earlier post.

Don’t Know Much About the Civil War (Harper paperback, Random House Audio)

The truth matters. Now more than ever. So, once and for all, we must set the record straight.

As we observe Memorial Day, a day for honoring our nation’s war dead, let us emphasis these truths about America’s deep history of slavery.

Here are five important points that illustrate the through-line of slavery in American history, from the founding through the Civil War:

  • Enslaved people were in America before the Mayflower Pilgrims
  • Thomas Jefferson condemned slavery in drafting the Declaration of Independence but other Founders scrubbed the language from the nation’s “birth certificate”
  • Slavery was “baked in” the U.S. Constitution in the three-fifths compromise
  • Slavery made the Civil War inevitable
  • The abolition of slavery after the Civil War did not end the stark divisions that continue to plague the United States today

READ MORE in my article “Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles” (Social Education, March-April 2020)


Don’t Know Much About® Harry S. Truman

(Previous post updated 8 May, 2024)

Happy 140th Birthday!

Harry Truman, 33rd President of the United States, was born on May 8, 1884.


President Harry S. Truman (Photo: Truman Library)

President Harry S. Truman
(Photo: Truman Library)

It was on his birthday in 1945 that Truman was able to tell Americans that the war in Europe was over with the surrender of Germany.

THIS IS a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe. For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity.

Described as “a minor national figure with a pedestrian background,” Truman was a World War I veteran and a Senator from Missouri when Franklin D. Roosevelt chose him to become his running mate in the 1944 election. Truman became vice president when FDR won his fourth term and then took office on April  12, 1945 when FDR died.

When he took office, Truman had been largely left “out of the loop” by Roosevelt as World War II entered its final months. Truman did not know of the existence of the “Manhattan Project” and the development of the atomic bomb until he became president. Then he had to make the decision to use it against the Japanese.

Fast Facts

•Truman was a member of the Sons of the Revolution and the Sons of Confederate Veterans

•He wanted to attend West Point but poor eyesight kept him out. He enlisted in the Missouri National Guard and served as the commander of an artillery battery in World War I.

•Before entering politics, he was a farmer, bank clerk, insurance salesman and owner of a failed haberdashery store.

•As president he once threatened to punch the nose of a newspaper critic who had given his daughter a poor review after her debut singing recital. Margaret Truman went on to greater fame as a mystery novelist, beginning with Murder in the White House published in 1980.

•After Grover Cleveland, Truman is the only president who did not attend college. He attended law school briefly but dropped out.
After the end of World War II, Truman had to shift America’s attention to the new “Cold War” with the Soviet Union and his policies of “containment” and the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe were hallmarks of his presidency.

Harry S. Truman died on December 26, 1972.

The Truman Library and Museum is located in Independence, Missouri

Read more about Truman, his life and administration in Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents. Truman is also featured in the Berlin Battle chapter of The Hidden History of America at War.

Don’t Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

 In paperback May 2016 THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion paperback-April 15, 2014)

Don’t Know Much About® the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 from front page of The New York World (Source: Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center © 2011)

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 from front page of The New York World (Source: [Post revised from original on 3/25/2011]Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center © 2011)

[Reposted from original on 3/25/2011; revised 3/27/2024]

Can anything positive or hopeful emerge from a terrible tragedy? That is a question we are all pondering as we still contend with a pandemic that swept across the United States and the world.

We are also asking about the human costs of “business as usual.”

So it is a moment to consider of one of the greatest tragedies of modern American history.

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York caught fire and 146 people died, most of them women between the ages of 14 and 23, many were Jewish and Italian immigrants. They had been trapped inside the building, its doors chained shut.

Cornell University’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation offers a web exhibit on the Triangle Factory Fire.

These are the names of the 146 people who died that day.

A new memorial commemorates the event, the memory of the lost, and the meaning of the tragedy.

It was a disaster that shook the American conscience and sparked the nation’s  Labor movement.

“Look for the union label.”

If you are of a certain generation, you may recognize those words instantly. They are the first line of a song that became a 1970s advertising icon.

Sung by a swelling chorus of lovely ladies (and a few men) of all colors, shapes and sizes, it was the anthem of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Airing as American unions began to confront the long, steady drain of jobs to cheaper foreign labor markets, the song implored us to look for the union label when shopping for clothes (“When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse”).

Seeing these earnest women, thinking of them at their sewing machines, made us race to the closet and check our clothes for that ILGWU tag. (“It says we’re able to make it in the USA.”)

The International Ladies Garment Worker Union was born in 1900, in the midst of the often-violent period of early 20th century labor organizing when brutal working conditions and child labor were the norm in America’s mines and factories.

One of the companies the union attempted to organize was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at what is now Greene Street and Washington Place in New York’s Greenwich Village.

A walkout against the firm in 1909 helped strengthen the union’s rolls and led to a union victory in 1910. But the Triangle Shirtwaist Company –which would chain its doors shut to control its workers— earned infamy when a fire broke out on March 25, 1911 and 146 workers were trapped in the flaming building and died. Some jumped to their deaths.

 A police officer and others with the broken bodies of Triangle fire victims at their feet, look up in shock at workers poised to jump from the upper floors of the burning Asch Building. (Credit: Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center ©2011)

A police officer and others with the broken bodies of Triangle fire victims at their feet, look up in shock at workers poised to jump from the upper floors of the burning Asch Building. (Credit: Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center ©2011)

The two owners of the factory were indicted but found not guilty. The tragedy helped galvanize the trade union movement and especially the ILGWU.

On this anniversary of that dreadful event, it is worth remembering that American prosperity was built on the sweat, tears and blood of working men and women. Immigration and jobs are the issue again today, just as they were more than a century ago.


The Library of Congress also offers numerous resources on the tragedy.

On February 28, 2011, American Experience on PBS aired a documentary film about the tragedy and the period.

The site is part of New York University and a National Historic Landmark.

I also discuss labor history in Don’t Know Much About History.

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition

Don’t Know Much About® Mr. Madison

March 16 marks the anniversary of the birth in 1751 of America’s fourth President, James Madison, also known as “The Father of the Constitution.”

Like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, his Virginia predecessors in the presidency, Madison embodied the “Great Contradiction”– that a nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles.

READ MY ARTICLE “THE AMERICAN CONTRADICTION,” on teaching the history of American slavery in Social Education.

Small in stature and overshadowed by the more famous Washington and Jefferson, Madison is counted among 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.

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 book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY.YALSA medal_2

Montpelier, home of James Madison (Photo: Kenneth C. Davis, 2010)

James Madison was born on March 16, 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia. The son of a tobacco planter and somewhat sickly as a child, he went 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, 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 (Resources from the Library of Congress), 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’s grave at Montpelier (Author photo 2010)

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.

YALSA medal_2


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.




Don’t Know Much About® Andrew Jackson

Imacon Color Scanner

Imacon Color Scanner

(March 15, 2024: 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 in 2021 was put 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 (created in 2014) 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 March 27, 1814, Jackson’s troops defeated Red Eagle and his Creek warriors, killing more than 800 Natives–women, children, and the elderly as well as warriors. Jackson’s soldiers cut off the noses of the dead to tally their numbers. Other soldiers cut off strips of skin to make reins for their horses. (A Nation Rising, page 66-68)

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.

Resources from Library of Congress.

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: 

Grave of Alfred Jackson

Tombstone of Alfred Jackson, enslaved servant of Andrew Jackson. (Author photo © 2010)

“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.

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents
In the Shadow of Liberty

What Do We Do About George?

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (Source: Clark Institute Williamstown, Mass.)

[Originally posted July 2, 2020; revised February 22, 2024]

Today is actually George Washington’s Birthday. Maybe you thought you celebrated last Monday (not President’s Day). Seeing as the holiday falls in February –Black History Month– it is a good time to bring these two crucial pieces of history together.

There is no question that Washington’s accomplishments were central to the foundation of the Republic. His command during the Revolution. His role at the Constitutional Convention, where he presided. His two terms as president, in which he established many presidential precedents and then stepped aside. For these achievements, I described him as one of America’s greatest presidents. He was, as one biographer described him, the “Indispensable Man.”

But like many of the Founders, the “Father of Our Country” enslaved people. Inheriting ten people from his father at age eleven, Washington held more than three hundred men, women, and children in bondage at the time of his death in 1799. While one man was freed in Washington’s will, the others had to wait for Martha Washington to die. And roughly half of those people remained enslaved, parceled out among the Custis family, as part of the estate of Martha’s first husband.

In other words, George Washington was an enslaver from childhood to grave. And we have the receipts.

He once raffled off whole families in lots, including small children separated from parents. He later purchased four children at an estate sale, sending two dark-skinned boys to do fieldwork while two “mulatto” boys became house servants. Frank Lee became Mount Vernon’s butler and his brother Billy Lee served as Washington’s valet, his “loyal manservant,” for some thirty years.

The last remaining set of Washington’s dentures (Courtesy: Mount Vernon Ladies Association)

Washington’s own journal records that he purchased teeth pulled from the mouths of enslaved people, presumably to be fitted into his dentures. In exchange for a grocery list of rum, molasses, fruits, and sweetmeats, he once shipped off a man named Tom, a repeat runaway, and at least two other men to the cane fields of the West Indies.

And then there is the heroic Washington’s actions at Yorktown. After his signal victory over the British in 1781, General Washington wasted no time in recovering Esther, Lucy, Sambo Andersen, and fourteen others who had escaped Mount Vernon when offered the chance. They were among thousands of enslaved people who had fled to the British in hopes of emancipation. While Washington won America’s liberty, they lost theirs.

Did this inconsistency trouble Washington? The contradiction between his devotion to freedom while enslaving people did seem to prick his conscience. In 1786, he confided to fellow Founder Robert Morris, “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].”

But he did precious little to make it happen, either while presiding over the convention that cemented slavery in the Constitution, or as first president. After Philadelphia became the nation’s capital in 1790, President Washington shuttled enslaved servants in and out of the city to evade a Pennsylvania law that called for the emancipation of enslaved males residing in the state for more than six months. In 1793, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act, making assistance to runaways a federal offense.

When Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s enslaved maid, learned she would be given away as a wedding gift, she escaped from the home of the president in 1796. He advertised a ten-dollar reward for her return and spent the next three years trying to track down and recover a woman who had risked all for freedom.

For more than two centuries, these contradictions were given little weight by Washington’s admirers. The little boy who couldn’t tell a lie was immortalized as “First in the hearts of his countrymen.” The enslavement of human beings, especially by one of America’s most admired presidents, remained the dirty secret long concealed by textbooks and popular culture.

But a stunning moment of correction has arrived. It begs the questions:

Will George Washington’s picture be removed from the currency?

Will protestors project the images of African-American heroes onto Washington’s stern visage carved on Mt. Rushmore, as Harriet Tubman’s face now adorns Robert E. Lee’s statue in Richmond?

Washington Monument (Courtesy National Parks Service

What about the Washington Monument?

We are now in a teachable moment. What we do is limited only by our creativity and the courage to be honest. We won’t take a chisel to the Washington Monument or spray paint it with graffiti. But we should teach students and all Americans that Washington was a flawed man who committed a crime against humanity while also building the nation. This was the “gross injustice and cruelty” that Frederick Douglass famously called out in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Remaining silent on that injustice and cruelty is no longer an option. Because this is one of those “self-evident” truths. The United States was “conceived in liberty,” but born in shackles. We can no longer honor Washington’s indispensable achievements without recognizing his original sin.

What better occasion than Washington’s Birthday to do that.



Posted on February 22, 2024 Comment Share:

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