(Revise of a post first published June 2015)
On Thursday, June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a Juneteenth holiday into law.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free…” –General Gordon Granger, June 19, 1865
Each year, JUNE 19 is a day to mark “Juneteenth” –a holiday celebrating emancipation at the end of the Civil War.
“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.” (New York Times June 19, 2015)
Read more of the complete story of Juneteenth in my 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.
Now more than ever, it is time to fix that.
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 celebration of the the holiday and its traditions of foods is highlighted in this New York Times article, “Hot Links and Red Drinks”
The question of how we teach and talk about enslavement is also the subject of my recent 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.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “D-Day Prayer” in an announcement to the nation of the invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944)
My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
Franklin Roosevelt’s D-Day Prayer Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum
In the largest amphibian assault in history, Allied armies crossed the English Channel to land on five beaches in Normandy in northern France. The invasion force involved 700 ships, 4,000 landing craft, 10,000 planes, and some 176,000 Allied troops from twelve countries. The allied forces were commanded by future President, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The day was chaotic, brutal and bloody.
Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, brought the reality of combat home to millions, but many moviegoers did not know which battle the film depicted, or when and why it happened. The assault, code-named Operation Overlord, occurred June 6, 1944, against Hitler’s Germany.
By the of the day on June 6, 1944, the allies had taken all five beaches that had been targeted. The combined allied losses on that day have been recently stated at 4,415 dead, according to the National D-Day Memorial.
The German army did not formally surrender until May 7, 1945. May 8, 1945 was declared V.E. (Victory in Europe) Day.
More D-Day resources can be found at the FDR Library and Museum
Read more about FDR’s life and administration and World War II in Don’t Know Much About® History and Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents
(Originally posted in 2012)
“Foreign aid” is not just “do-gooder” national policy. It is an effective means to influence future outcomes. There is no better example than the program that came to be called the “Marshall Plan.”
On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall gave Harvard’s commencement address, introducing and justifying the European Recovery Program, which became known as the Marshall Plan.
Marshall (born December 31, 1880) had been the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army during World War II and Winston Churchill hailed him as the “true organizer of victory.” The plan, part of the Cold War program of “Containment” championed by George F. Kennan, and put forth by President Harry S. Truman, is credited with restoring the economies of post-World War II western Europe. At Harvard, Marshall said:
The truth of the matter is that Europe’s requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products—principally from America—are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help, or face economic, social and political deterioration of a very grave character. …Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.
Conceived by Undersecretary of State Will Clayton and first proposed by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the Marshall Plan pumped more than $12 billion into selected war torn European countries during the next four years. (The countries participating were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, West Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.)
It provided the economic side of President Truman’s policy of “Containment” by removing the economic dislocation that might have fostered Communism in Western Europe. It also set up a Displaced Persons Plan under which some 300,000 Europeans, many of them Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, were granted American citizenship. By most accounts, the Marshall Plan was the most successful undertaking of the United States in the post-war era and is often cited as the most compelling argument in favor of foreign aid.
By most measures, the Marshall Plan must be considered an enormously successful undertaking that helped return a devastated Europe to health. allowing free market democracies to flourish while Eastern Europe, hunkered down under repressive Soviet controlled regimes, stagnated socially and economically.
You can read more about the Marshall Plan and the Cold War era in the newly revised and updated edition of Don’t Know Much About History.
MEMORIAL DAY -MONDAY MAY 31, 2021
(Revise of 2015 post)
Do we need to rethink Memorial Day? Is this Memorial Day unlike the others? Has the holiday’s meaning changed with the pandemic?
If we have been at war with Covid, should a holiday honoring the war dead include the grievous losses of the pandemic?
As happened last year, many traditional public celebrations and family gatherings will be curtailed again.
But a debate over Memorial Day –and more specifically what it means and who it honors? America’s most solemn holiday should be free of rancor. But it never has been.
The heated arguments over removing the Confederate flag and monuments to heroes and soldiers of the Confederacy in New Orleans and St. Louis provide examples and reminders of the birth of Memorial Day.
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.
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.
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” 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.
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)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= (This video was originally posted May 2012. It was produced, edited and directed by Colin Davis.)
Memorial Day brings thoughts of duty, honor, courage, sacrifice and loss. The holiday, the most somber date on the American national calendar, was born in the ashes of the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” when General John S. Logan –a-veteran of the Mexican and Civil Wars, a prominent Illinois politician and leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union fraternal organization –called for May 30, 1868 as the day on which the graves of fallen Union soldiers would be decorated with fresh flowers in his “General Orders No. 11.”
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds.”
Pointedly, Logan’s order was seen as a day to honor those who died in the cause of ending slavery and opposing the “rebellion.”
Every year at this time, I spend a lot of time talking about the roots and traditions of Memorial Day.
It’s not about the barbecue or the Mattress Sales. Obscured by the holiday atmosphere around Memorial Day is the fact that it is the most solemn day on the national calendar. This video tells a bit about the history behind the holiday.
One of the most famous symbols of the loss on Memorial Day is the Poppy, inspired by this World War I poem by John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Have a memorable Memorial Day!
The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs offers more resources on the history and traditions of Memorial Day.
(Images in video: Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Flanders Cemetery image Courtesy of the American Battle Monuments Commission)
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.