Don't Know Much

“A lover’s quarrel with the world”-Robert Frost

In honor of his birthday on March 26, 1874,  a 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

Robert Frost (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Robert Frost (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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.

A brief biography of Robert Frost can be found at, where there are more samples of his poetry. It includes an account of Frost and JFK.

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.

Here is the NYTimes obituary published after his death.

This material is adapted from Don’t Know Much About Literature written in collaboration with Jenny Davis.


“Have Americans Forgotten the History of this Deadly Flu?”

Members of the St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty on five ambulances during the 1918 flu pandemic. Via Library of Congress

This is from a PBS interview that ran in November 2018 about the impact of the Spanish Flu and the possibility of another pandemic outbreak.  This is the subject of my book More Deadly Than War. As I said at the time,

Could this happen again? The answer is, of course. And I’m sure there are people at the CDC who probably have nightmares about this. But we are much better prepared than we were 100 years ago. We would possibly have a vaccine that would work against such a virus, if it were identified and produced in massive numbers quickly enough.

We have erected enormous guardrails around the world through international cooperation, the World Health Organization, perhaps one of the most effective parts of the United Nations. Those guardrails are weakened when we deny science, when we ignore sound medical advice for short-term political considerations.


Read more of the interview here:

“In autumn of 1918, the largest military offensive in American history was raging on Europe’s Western Front. The battle concluded on Nov. 11, 1918, when the Armistice with Germany was signed, ending what was known as the Great War.

But more U.S. soldiers died of disease (63,114), primarily from the Spanish flu, than in combat (53,402).

Overall, 675,000 Americans were killed by the Spanish flu. This number surpasses the total of U.S. soldiers killed in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War combined. Current day estimates put the death toll from the 1918-1919 outbreak of the Spanish flu between 80 to 100 million worldwide.”

PBS NewsHour Interview

You can also read my article in Smithsonian, “Philadelphia Threw a WWI Parade That Gave Thousands of Onlookers the Flu.”




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]

Can anything positive or hopeful emerge from a terrible tragedy? That is a question we are all pondering in March 2020 as a pandemic sweeps the United States and the world. We are also asking about the human costs of “business as usual.”

It is a moment to consider of one of the great tragedies of American history.

On this date, March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York caught fire and 146 people died, most of them women between the ages of 16 and 23.



“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 rousingly 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. It employed many poor and mostly immigrant women, most of them Jewish and Italian.

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.


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

STRONGMAN: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy

In October 2020, my new book, STRONGMAN: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy, will be published (Holt Books).

In it, I recount 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.

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.

Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy (October 2020)


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.


“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 your 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).


Watch for more news about STRONGMAN here in the coming months.

Don’t Know Much About® Mr. Madison

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.


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, 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’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.

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.YALSA medal_2


The White House brief biography of James Madison

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® Executive Order 9066

(Post revised 2/19/2020)

On this date- February 19, 1942 – a different kind of infamy

 Dorothea Lange In this 1942 Dorothea Lange photograph from the newly published “Impounded,” a family in Hayward, Calif., awaits an evacuation bus.

Dorothea Lange
In this 1942 Dorothea Lange photograph from the book “Impounded,” a family in Hayward, Calif., awaits an evacuation bus.

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.

The result of this Executive Order was the policy of “relocating” some 120,000 Japanese Americans, and a smaller number of German and Italian Americans,  into “internment camps.”

The National Constitution Center offers an excellent overview of the order and its impact.

I have written about the subject of the internment of the Japanese American population in the past including one on photojournalist Dorothea Lange,  and Ansel Adams, who also documented the period.


Photo: (National Park Service, Jeffery Burton, photographer


Among these resources is a site devoted to the War Relocation Camps –a Teaching With Historic Places Lesson Plan from the National Park Service called “When Fear Was Stronger than Justice.”

It is NOT Presidents Day. Or President’s Day. Or Even Presidents’ Day.

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.

I wrote My Project About Presidents in 3rd Grade when I was 9. Even then I was asking questions about history and presidents

I wrote My Project About Presidents in 3rd Grade when I was 9. Even then I was asking questions about history and presidents

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.

Washington’s Tomb — Mt. Vernon (Photo credit Kenneth C. Davis 2010)

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.

The Hidden History of America At War (paperback)


Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition

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


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

February 12 used to mean something special  — Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. It was never a national holiday but it was pretty important when I was a kid and we got the day off from school in my  hometown.

The Uniform Holidays Act in 1971 changed that by creating Washington’s Birthday as a federal holiday on the third Monday in February. It is NOT officially “Presidents Day.”

But it is still a good excuse to talk about Abraham Lincoln, especially since his real birthday is on the calendar.

“Honest Abe.” “The Railsplitter.” “The Great Emancipator.” You know some of the basics and the legends. But check out this video to learn some of things you may not know, but should, about the 16th President.

Here’s a link to the Lincoln Birthplace National Park

This link is to the Emancipation Proclamation page at the National Archives.

And you can read much more about Lincoln in these books:

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)
Don't Know Much About the Civil War (Harper paperback, Random House Audio)
In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah
Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents

“Study War No More”-Dr. King’s Other Speech

Martin Luther King Jr. Credit: United Press International telephoto,1965 Oct 11. Prints and Photographs Divison of the Library of Congress.

Martin Luther King Jr.Credit: United Press International telephoto,1965 Oct 11. Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.


Marking the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, many people will read or hear his most famous speech, the “I have a dream” speech delivered in Washington, D.C. in August 1963.

Nearly five years after the celebrated 1963 rally, and just days before his death, Dr. King delivered his final Sunday sermon at National Cathedral on March 31, 1968.  King’s words that day may not have the familiar ring of “I have a dream.”

Preparing to lead the “Poor People’s Campaign” into Washington later that spring, he addressed three central issues.

He spoke first about racial equality, the glimmers of progress that had been made in five years, and the promises still to be kept. Then he turned to poverty, hunger and inadequate housing in what he called “the richest nation in the world.”  This was, after all, going to be the “Poor People’s Campaign.” King knew that economic injustice could be colorblind.

But there was a third piece of Dr. King’s vision. On that day in 1968, as the war in Vietnam raged and American opposition to that war mounted, Dr. King said,

“Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution.”

Text Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute 

Guided by Thoreau, Gandhi and his own Christianity, King’s belief in nonviolence and the use of civil disobedience were central to his movement’s push for racial justice. But his unflinching opposition to the war in Vietnam tends to be shunted to the sidelines when discussing King’s legacy. Certainly when he first voiced his opposition to the war, his was not a popular stance. Accused of taking the “Commie” line, Dr. King acknowledged that his antiwar views were hurting the movement and his organization.

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular,” he told the thousands who packed the Cathedral. “… I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘We ain’t goin’ study war no more.’”

Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute (Retrieved September 2, 2013)

Ironically, King’s “other speech” was overshadowed. Later that evening, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced to a national television audience that he was withdrawing from the presidential race. The weight of the war and the growing opposition to it had combined to force Johnson from his quest for another term. And a few days later, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis.

Those who wish to remember Dr. King’s impact and ideas must recall more than a gauzy, feel-good rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” It is mere lip service to trumpet King’s “Dream” without acknowledging the other piece of his call to conscience:

“Simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed.”

(Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute Retrieved September 2, 2013)


“Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport”

Here is my article, Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport: The Role of Social Studies in Safeguarding the Republic, appearing in the September issue of Social Education, the magazine of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).  Since the article went to press, I learned that New York City’s Department of Education has expanded its “Civics for All” initiative, implementing a comprehensive and cohesive approach with a full K-12 curriculum. Their program includes a voter registration drive across 600 high schools.

Educators and other groups interested in having me discuss this topic in person or via Skype can use the Contact button on this website.

This issue is the featured subject of #sschat on Twitter, Monday October 14 at 7 PM (ET)


Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition