[Post revised 6/24/2020]
…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes , and our Sacred Honor.
Father and great-grandfather of presidents. A simple farmer. A Quaker workaholic. More lawyers. The next five signers, in alphabetical order: (Yes following the entry means slaveholder; No means not a slaveholder.)
-Benjamin Harrison V (Virginia) A member of the Virginia aristocracy, he was a well-to-do planter, around 50 years old at the the signing.
On June 7, 1776, Benjamin Harrison was chosen to introduce fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee whose resolution called for independence from England. He was selected to read Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence to the assembled delegates on July 1… [Source: Berkeley Plantation]
Besides his role in the July 2 and 4 votes in Philadelphia, he is mostly distinguished as being the father of 9th president William Henry Harrison and great-grandfather of namesake Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president.
Although his famed Berkeley Plantation on the James River was attacked and partially burned by British forces led by the traitor Benedict Arnold, it clearly survived the war. So did Harrison, who went on to serve three terms as governor of Virginia before his death in 1791 at age 65. YES
-John Hart (New Jersey) Described as a well-meaning “Jersey” farmer with little education, Hart was a 65 year old planter at the time of the signing, and devoted to the patriot cause. Although supposedly hounded by the British during the war, he was later able to entertain General Washington and allow 12,000 troops to camp in his fields in 1778. He died of kidney stones in 1779, aged 68. YES
–Joseph Hewes (North Carolina) Born in New Jersey, he moved to North Carolina and was a 46 year old Quaker merchant at the signing. At first a reluctant patriot, he broke with the Quakers over the possibility of a violent rebellion and was considered a key influence in Congress by John Adams. His shipping experience was significant enough for him to be described as the first “secretary of the Navy,” responsible for getting his friend John Paul Jones a commission. Working relentlessly for the Congress, Hewes fell sick and died in 1779 at age 49 and was deeply mourned by his Congressional colleagues. YES
-Thomas Heyward, Jr. (South Carolina) Son of a wealthy planter, he was a 30 year old lawyer at the signing. Heyward counts as one of the few signers actually captured by the British, who then took his enslaved people, apparently shipping them to bondage in the West Indies. Initially paroled (released under an agreement), he was later taken aboard a prison ship and then held in St. Augustine, Florida under a form of house arrest until released in a prisoner exchange. While a hostage, he is credited with writing verses to a song called “God Save the Thirteen States.” He dabbled in politics after the war, but focused on rebuilding his family plantation where he died at 63 in 1809. YES
-William Hooper (North Carolina) Born in Boston, he was a 34-year-old attorney who had moved South at the signing. He missed the key July vote but returned to sign the Declaration in August. Hooper was one of the signers who suffered losses during the war when the British invaders evacuating the Wilmington, North Carolina area destroyed his home. He later pressed for ratification of the Constitution but lacked popularity in his adopted state and, suffering from a variety of illnesses, including malaria, died in 1790 at age 48. YES
[Post revised June 23, 2020]
Part 3 in a series of posts about the fates of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. A printer, a politician with a notable name, a duelist, a Connecticut Yankee, and the most famous signature in U.S. history.
A Yes after their names means they enslaved people; No means they did not.
-Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania) America’s most famous man in 1776, Franklin was 70 years old at the time of the signing. Printer, publisher, writer, scientist, diplomat, philosopher –he was the embodiment of the Enlightenment ideal. A member of the draft committee that produced the Declaration, Franklin was a central figure in the independence vote and then helped the war effort by winning crucial French support for the America cause.
But he lost no Fortune, reportedly tripling his wealth during the conflict. Franklin returned to the scene of the Declaration’s passage in 1787 to help draft the Constitution. When he died at age 84 in 1790, his funeral was attended by a crowd equal to Philadelphia’s population at the time. Read more on Franklin at this National Park Service site. YES
–Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts) A 32-year-old merchant from Marblehead, Gerry (pronounced with a hard G like Gary) is much more famous for later dividing Massachusetts into oddly-shaped voting districts as the state’s governor. A cartoonist compared the districts to a salamander and the word “gerry-mandering” was born.
Though he voted for independence, Gerry was not present to sign in August, signing later in the fall of 1776. He profited from the war and later joined the Massachusetts delegation to the Constitutional convention in 1787, although he refused to sign the Constitution. He became James Madison’s second vice president in 1813, but died in office in 1814 at age 70. NO
–Button Gwinnett (Georgia) An English-born plantation owner and merchant, he was 41 at the time of the signing. And didn’t last much longer. A political argument with a Georgia general led to a duel in which Gwinnett was mortally wounded. He died in 1777 at age 42, the second of the signers to die. (John Morton of Pennsylvania was first.) YES
–Lyman Hall (Georgia) A Connecticut Yankee Congregational minister and physician transplanted to Georgia plantation owner, Hall was 52 years old at the signing. A vocal patriot when Georgia was far more hesitant about independence, he first came to Philadelphia as a nonvoting delegate. Hall’s plantation was destroyed during the war during the punishing British campaigns in the South. He later served as Georgia’s governor, dying at age 66 in 1790. YES
–John Hancock (Massachusetts) Born into a poor parson’s family in Lexington (National Parks Service site), Hancock was sent to live with a wealthy uncle when his father died. He inherited his uncle’s shipping business and was one of America’s wealthiest men by the time he was thirty. A patriot leader in Boston, it was Hancock and Samuel Adams who the British sought to capture on that April 1775 night when the war began.
President of the Continental Congress when independence was declared, he was 39 at the time of the signing. The out-sized signature on the document cemented his fame in American lore. Elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1780,
Hancock lived a conspicuously opulent life in his mansion crowning Beacon Hill. The citizenry still had weapons and were accustomed to fighting the taxes of remote governments. Recognizing the stirrings of revolution and suffering from reoccurring gout, Hancock resigned the governorship until the resistance, which took the form of Shay’s Rebellion, was put down.
After the war,
Governor Hancock continued to be reelected annually with victory margins frequently well above eighty percent. He died in office in 1793 and was succeeded by his friend, Lieutenant Governor Samuel Adams. (Source: Commonwealth of Massachusetts)
(Post revised and updated 6-22-2020)
…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes , and our Sacred Honor.
Part 2 of a series that begins here. (A YES denotes an enslaver or slave trader; NO means the person did not enslave people.)
Here are the next five Signers of the Declaration, continuing in alphabetical order:
–Samuel Chase (Maryland) A 35 year old attorney, Chase is among those signers who didn’t vote on July 4; he signed the later printed version in August. Accused of wartime profiteering but never tried or convicted, he later went broke from business speculating and settled into law practice. President George Washington appointed him to the Supreme Court, and Chase became the first justice to be impeached –although he was acquitted.
The failure of the Senate to convict allowed Chase to return to the Supreme Court and serve 6 more years as an associate justice. More importantly, the acquittal deterred the House of Representatives from using impeachment as a partisan political tool.
Chase returned to the Supreme Court and died of a heart attack in 1811 at age 70. YES Learn more about Impeachment history here.
-Abraham Clark (New Jersey) An attorney, 50 years old at the signing, Clark had two sons who were captured and imprisoned during the war; one on the notorious British prison ship Jersey and the other in a New York jail cell. Clark served in Congress on and off and opposed the Constitution’s ratification until the Bill of Rights was added. He died in 1794 at age 68. YES
–George Clymer (Pennsylvania) A 37 year old merchant the time of the signing, Clymer was a well-heeled patriot leader who helped fund the American war effort. He was also elected to Congress after the July 2 independence vote, signing the Declaration on August 2. He belongs to an elite group who signed both the Declaration and the Constitution. (The others were Roger Sherman of Conn,; George Read of Del.; and Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris and James Wilson, all of PA.) He continued to prosper after the war and died in 1813 at age 74. NO
-William Ellery (Rhode Island) A modestly successful merchant turned attorney, aged 48 at the signing, Ellery replaced an earlier Rhode Island delegate who died of smallpox in Philadelphia. (Smallpox killed more Americans than the war did during the Revolution.) A dedicated member of Congress during the war years, Ellery saw his home burned by the British although it is thought unlikely they knew it was the home of a Signer. An abolitionist, he was rewarded after the war by President Washington with the lucrative post of collector for the port of Newport which he held for three decades. He died in 1829, aged 92, second in longevity among signers after Carroll. NO
-William Floyd (New York) At the signing, a 41 year old land speculator born on Long Island, New York, Floyd abstained from the July 2 independence vote with the rest of the New York delegation, but is thought to be the first New Yorker to sign the Declaration on August 2. Reports that his home on Fire Island was destroyed by the British were exaggerated, although it was used as a stable and barracks by the occupying Redcoats. (It is now part of a Fire Island National Park.) Floyd served in the first Congress before moving to western New York where he owned massive land tracts and where he died at age 86 in 1821. YES
In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
This is the first in a series of posts about the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and what became of them. Most of these men are obscure to many Americans and they have also been mythologized in some online forums. Many of them played a significant role in the early republic before, during, and after July 4, 1776.
Slavery existed in all thirteen of the future states and at least 40 of the 56 signers enslaved people or were involved in the slave trade. One focus of the series is to show which of these men enslaved people or otherwise participated in the slave trade. A Yes after their listing means they enslaved people; a No means they did not.
“... our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.”
Then what happened?
…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes , and our Sacred Honor.
Those strong words concluded the Declaration of Independence when it was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.
There is little question that men who signed that document were putting their lives at risk. The identity and fates of a handful of those Signers is well-known. Two future presidents — Adams and Jefferson— and America’s most famous man, Benjamin Franklin, were on the Committee that drafted the document.
But the names and fortunes of many of the other signers, including the most visible, John Hancock, are more obscure. In the days leading up to Independence Day, I will offer a thumbnail sketch of each of the Signers in alphabetical order. Some prospered and thrived; some did not: How many of those Signers actually paid with their Lives, Fortunes, and Sacred Honor?
–John Adams (Massachusetts) Aged 40 when he signed, he went on to become the first vice president and second president of the United States. By 1790, Adams was convinced that his place in the history to be written would be diminished.
“The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other,” he wrote fellow Founder Benjamin Rush in 1790.
“The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod –and thenceforward these two conducted all the policies, negotiations, legislatures, and war.”
Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration in 1826 at age 90. (Jefferson died that same day) NO
–Samuel Adams (Mass.) Older cousin to John, Samuel Adams was 53 at the signing. He went on to a career in state politics, initially refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights, and was governor of Massachusetts. He died in 1803 at 81. NO
–Josiah Bartlett (New Hampshire) Inspiring the name of the fictional president of West Wing fame on TV, Bartlett was a physician, aged 46 at the time of the signing. He helped ratify the Constitution in his home state, giving the document the necessary nine states to become the law of the land. Elected senator he chose to remain in New Hampshire as governor. Three of his sons and other descendants also became physicians. He died in 1795 at age 65. YES
–Carter Braxton (Virginia) A 39-year-old plantation owner, Braxton was looking to invest in the slave trade before the Revolution. Initially reluctant about independence, he helped fund the rebellion and lost a considerable fortune during the war — not because he was a signer, but because of shipping losses suffered during the war itself. He later served in the Virginia legislature and died in 1797 at age 61, far less wealthy than he had been, but also far from impoverished. YES
–Charles Carroll of Carrollton (Maryland) A plantation owner, 38 years old and one of America’s wealthiest men at the signing, Carroll was the only Roman Catholic signer and the last signer to die. With hundreds of enslaved people on his properties, Carroll considered freeing some of them before his death and later introduced a bill for gradual abolition in Maryland, which had no chance of passage. At age ninety-one, he laid the cornerstone of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as a member of its board of directors. He died in 1832 at age 95. YES
Update: Carroll’s cousin was John Carroll, a Jesuit priest, first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, and a founder of Georgetown College. The New York Times has reported how, in 1838, Georgetown sold 272 enslaved people to keep the college financially afloat.
(Revise of a post first published June 2015)
NEWS UPDATE: On June 9, Twitter and Square announced that Juneteenth would be a permanent company-wide holiday. (New York Times).
On June 17, 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he would propose making Juneteenth a state holiday.
“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.
(Revised post originally published on February 29, 2016)
Once again, it is necessary to repost this piece about the Kerner Commission, formed fifty-three years ago to address violence in American cities.
On July 27, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. He was responding to a series of violent outbursts in predominantly black urban neighborhoods in such cities as Detroit and Newark.
On July 29, 1967, President Johnson made remarks about the reasons for the commission:
The civil peace has been shattered in a number of cities. The American people are deeply disturbed. They are baffled and dismayed by the wholesale looting and violence that has occurred both in small towns and in great metropolitan centers.
No society can tolerate massive violence, any more than a body can tolerate massive disease. And we in America shall not tolerate it.
But just saying that does not solve the problem. We need to know the answers, I think, to three basic questions about these riots:
–Why did it happen?
–What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?
Source:Lyndon B. Johnson: “Remarks Upon Signing Order Establishing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.,” July 29, 1967. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
On Feb. 29, 1968, President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, later known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois, issued a stark warning:
“Our Nation Is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal”
The Committee Report went on to identify a set of “deeply held grievances” that it believed had led to the violence.
Although almost all cities had some sort of formal grievance mechanism for handling citizen complaints, this typically was regarded by Negroes as ineffective and was generally ignored.
Although specific grievances varied from city to city, at least 12 deeply held grievances can be identified and ranked into three levels of relative intensity:
First Level of Intensity
1. Police practices
2. Unemployment and underemployment
3. Inadequate housing
Second Level of Intensity
4. Inadequate education
5. Poor recreation facilities and programs
6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms.
Third Level of Intensity
7. Disrespectful white attitudes
8. Discriminatory administration of justice
9. Inadequacy of federal programs
10. Inadequacy of municipal services
11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
12. Inadequate welfare programs
Source: “Our Nation is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal”: Excerpts from the Kerner Report; American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY)
and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (George Mason University).
Issued half a century ago, the list of grievances reads as if it could have been written today.
It was called a “riot.” But it was really a massacre — one of the bloodiest in American history.
This material is adapted from Don’t Know Much About® History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned (pages 325-327).
In the early 1920s, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a boisterous postwar boom town, getting rich quick on oil that had recently been discovered there. It was a place where the postwar Ku Klux Klan recruiters found fertile grounds. The isolationist mood, or the America First movement also called nativism, was also flourishing.
In the popular mood of the country, America was white and Christian, and it was going to stay that way. On May 30, 1921, when a teen-aged Black shoe shiner was arrested for assaulting a white girl in an elevator, the publisher of the local paper—eager to win a local circulation war—published a front-page that witnesses have claimed said, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” (No copy of the paper was ever found, even in newspaper archives.)
It was a familiar story in the Deep South of that era—a Black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Soon after the paper hit the streets, white crowds began to gather outside the courthouse where the accused shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, was being held. (Rowland was eventually released when the woman did not press charges.)
Blacks from the Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, some of them recently discharged war veterans, also began to descend on the courthouse to protect Rowland from being lynched. Shots were fired and soon the wholesale destruction of an entire community began in hellish force. A mob of more than 10,000 whites, fully backed by the white police force, went wild. It was called a riot but it was a massacre, or in modern parlance there is a better term—“ethnic cleansing.” It lasted over three days.
As historian Tim Madigan put it in his book on Tulsa, The Burning,
“It soon became evident that whites would settle for nothing less than scorched earth. They would not be satisfied to kill negroes, or to arrest them. They would also try to destroy every vestige of black prosperity.”
Soon white women were looting Black homes, filling shopping bags. White men carrying gasoline set fire to the Greenwood neighborhood.
When it was over, there were many dead Blacks, some of them dumped into mass graves, and their neighborhood was in cinders, with more than 1,200 homes burned. Insurance companies later refused to pay fire claims, invoking a riot exemption. To add to the crime, the story disappeared from local history. Even local newspaper files were eventually cleaned out to remove evidence of the incident.
For decades, the massacre was hushed up, kept alive only by oral traditions of a few survivors. Only after nearly eighty years of silence did Tulsa and the Oklahoma legislature come to grips with the past. Historians looking into the city’s deadly massacre believe that close to 300 people died during the violence. In 2000, the “Tulsa Race Riot Commission,” a panel investigating the incident, recommended reparations be paid to the survivors of what is still considered the nation’s bloodiest incident of racial violence.
“No legislative action was ever taken on the recommendation, and the commission had no power to force legislation. In April 2002 a private religious charity, the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, paid a total of $28,000 to the survivors, a little more than $200 each, using funds raised from private donations.” (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica)
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
The Devil can scripture for his own purpose.
–Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Throughout history, the Bible has been used to justify many arguments. Often those biblical citations are mistaken, taken out of context, based on a mistranslation –or simply misused. These myths and misconceptions about what is in the Bible led me to write Don’t Know Much About® the Bible.
In American history, the Bible was cited to both justify slavery and call for its abolition. For centuries, slavers pointed to a passage in the book of Genesis to justify the cruel, murderous enslavement of millions of Africans. It is a part of the story of Noah that is not usually told in Sunday school.
After building the ark, loading the animals two by two, and weathering the Flood, Noah and his family reach dry land. Noah begins to plant and grows some grapes to make wine:
20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
–Genesis 9:20-27 King James Version
The passage is a bit garbled. But the “curse of Ham” was used to justify the enslavement of people of African ancestry, who were believed to be descendants of Ham, through his son Canaan. This theory was widely held during the eighteenth to twentieth centuries to justify both slavery and the racist notion of the inferiority of Blacks, and added to the many biblical references used by Christians to justify enslavement.
Gradually, other Christians argued that to enslave another human was a basic contradiction of Jesus’s teachings, including the Christian version of the “Golden Rule”:
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
–Matthew 7: 12 (King James Version)
There are many other instances of the Bible and religion being used as a weapon throughout American history, including the anti-Catholic “Bible Riots” in Philadelphia in 1844, which I wrote about in A Nation Rising.
Read more about the traditions of religious intolerance in my Smithsonian article “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance.”
The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over but people are already asking what a post-pandemic world will look like. Will there be more telemedicine? Less time in the office? More remote learning?
The short answer is nobody really knows. But history can help. The sweeping changes that followed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 offer some lessons.
Following the pandemic of 1918-1919, which took 675,000 American lives, most people just wanted to feel “normal.” Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding made “Return to Normalcy” the centerpiece of his 1920 campaign and won the White House in a popular landslide.
People also adopted a collective amnesia. The Spanish flu pandemic overlapped with the First World War and there was widespread sickness, death, and destruction. But while the First World War profoundly influenced art and literature, the Spanish flu pandemic left few marks in culture or popular memory.
There was no “pandemic literature.” Few novels, plays, movies, or paintings depicted the flu. A notable exception is Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a story written by Katherine Anne Porter, a survivor of the flu. No full-scale history of the flu was written until years later.
No surprise, the pandemic was followed by a desire to relax, have fun — even go a little wild– especially after after Prohibition was ushered in starting on January 17, 1920.
The 1920s brought loosening styles of clothing (Flappers!), music (Jazz!), dancing (the Charleston!), and the boom of Hollywood into one of the nation’s biggest businesses. It was the “Roaring Twenties.” After years of war and disease, people wanted to forget their troubles.
The status of women changed— they largely benefited. They had stepped in as nurses, factory workers, and teachers, helping the sick on the home front as others went to war. Women won the right to vote in federal elections in 1920 and voted in all 48 states that year.
And there was a dark side. During the pandemic, Germans were blamed for poisoning the water and causing the pandemic. Crowded tenements were hotspots and immigrants often got blamed for the outbreak. America retreated into isolationism and the anti-immigration laws passed after the pandemic were draconian. The fear of foreigners also emerged in the nation’s firest “Red Scare,” in which a young J. Edgar Hoover began his quest to find socialists, Bolsheviks and communists. And the hatred of immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and African Americans led to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and with it a wave of lynchings.
Of course, the excitement of the “Roaring Twenties” would be short lived and come crashing down –literally– with Wall Street’s “Great Crash” in October 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.
I discuss some of these changes in my book More Deadly Than War and the era of the “Roaring Twenties” in Don’t Know Much About® History.