Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.
-Thomas Paine Common Sense
One of the most significant pieces of writing in American history was published on January 10, 1776. It was Thomas Paine’s essay Common Sense and is widely credited with helping to rouse Americans to the patriot cause. Its sales were extraordinary at the time; given today’s American population, current day sales would reach some 60 million copies.
The pamphleteering Paine is best known for Common Sense and The Crisis, among other works that supported the cause of independence. But after the Revolution, Paine returned to his native England and later went to France, then in the throes of its Revolution. Paine was caught up in the complex politics of the bloody Revolution there, eventually winding up in a French prison cell, facing the prospect of the guillotine.
After eventually being freed, Paine wrote an open letter in 1796 angrily denouncing President George Washington for failing to do enough to secure his release.
“Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement. The lands obtained by the Revolution were lavished upon partisans; the interest of the disbanded soldier was sold to the speculator…In what fraudulent light must Mr. Washington’s character appear in the world, when his declarations and his conduct are compared together!”
Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon
This was a serious case of bridge-burning and Paine swiftly fell from grace in America. But apart from dissing the Father of the Country, Paine had also fallen from favor for his most famous work after Common Sense. In 1794, he had published The Age of Reason (Part I), a deist assault on organized religion and the errors of the Bible. In it, Paine had written:
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
After returning to the United States, which owed so much to him, Paine was regarded as an atheist and was abandoned by most of his friends and former allies. He died in disgrace, an outcast from the United States he had helped create. The Quaker church he had rejected refused to bury him after he died in Greenwich Village (New York) in 1809. He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, New York. A handful of people attended his funeral.
An admirer brought this remains back to England for reburial there, but they were lost.
You can read more about Thomas Paine, his relationship with Washington and his ultimate fate in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
Answer: Lyndon B. Johnson, who joined the Navy immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack.
“When the United States entered World War II, Johnson became the first member of Congress to enlist in the armed services, becoming a lieutenant commander in the Navy. His military service abruptly ended, however, when President Roosevelt ordered that members of Congress choose between serving in uniform or in Congress. Johnson resigned his active commission and returned to Capitol Hill.”
Source: United States Senate Historical Office
Lyndon. B. Johnson was born on August 27, 1908.
Eight future presidents served during World War II. The others are: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Jimmy Carter was at the Naval Academy during the war, graduating in 1946.
Read more about Johnson’s life and administration in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
Abraham Lincoln’s second annual Thanksgiving Proclamation had nothing to do with Pilgrims. But it did help create a national tradition.
So it might seem odd that Lincoln chose this moment to announce a national day of thanksgiving, to be marked on the last Thursday in November. His Oct. 3, 1863, proclamation read: “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict.”
But it took another year for the day to really catch hold. In 1864 Lincoln issued a second proclamation, which read, “I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust.”
“How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving.” This article, first published on November 25, 2014, in the New York Times “Disunion” blog, explains.
Like the Macy’s parade, here is my Thanksgiving tradition. I post two articles about the holiday that appeared on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.
The first, from 2008, is called “A French Connection” and tells the story of the real first Pilgrims in America. They were French. In Florida. Fifty years before the Mayflower sailed. It did not end with a happy meal. In fact, it ended in a religious massacre.
TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux. After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the “New World” were French. And they beat their English counterparts by 50 years. That French settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise Americans raised on our foundational myth, but the record is clear.
The complete story can be found in America’s Hidden History.
The second is “How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving” (2014) and tells the story of the Union League providing Thanksgiving dinners to Union troops.
Of all the bedtime-story versions of American history we teach, the tidy Thanksgiving pageant may be the one stuffed with the heaviest serving of myth. This iconic tale is the main course in our nation’s foundation legend, complete with cardboard cutouts of bow-carrying Native American cherubs and pint-size Pilgrims in black hats with buckles. And legend it largely is.
In fact, what had been a New England seasonal holiday became more of a “national” celebration only during the Civil War, with Lincoln’s proclamation calling for “a day of thanksgiving” in 1863.
Enjoy them both. Now for some football.
(Original video created and directed by Colin Davis)
With Thanksgiving around the corner, cutouts of Pilgrims in black clothes and clunky shoes are sprouting all over the place. You may know that the Pilgrims sailed aboard the Mayflower and arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. But did you know their first Thanksgiving celebration lasted three whole days? What else do you know about these early settlers of America? Don’t be a turkey. Try this True-False quiz.
True or False? (Answers below)
The site of Plimouth Plantation is definitely worth a visit.
Read about America’s real “first Pilgrims”–French Huguenots who landed in Florida more than fifty years before the Mayflower sailed– in this New York Times Op-Ed, “A French Connection“ and in my book America’s Hidden History
(Revise of original post dated 6/19/2017)
“An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
–House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (April 1970)
In the summer of 1787, as the framers debated the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin worried about how to get ride of corrupt or incompetent officials. Without some method of removal, the only recourse was assassination.
The other delegates agreed. And after considerable debate, they added the power of impeachment to the list of checks and balances of the legislature on the other two branches.
To date, the Senate has conducted formal impeachment proceedings 19 times, resulting in seven acquittals, eight convictions, three dismissals, and one resignation with no further action.
Gerald Ford knew how high that bar was set. In 1970, he failed in his attempt to impeach Douglas. The FDR-appointed liberal justice had already survived an earlier impeachment attempt over his brief stay of execution for convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg. This time, the supposed offense was financial impropriety, but Ford and others also clearly balked at Douglas’s liberal views. The majority of the House disagreed, and Douglas stayed on the bench.
So far, only two American presidents have been impeached and tried in the Senate: Andrew Johnson—Lincoln’s successor—and Bill Clinton. Both were acquitted. Richard Nixon would certainly have been impeached had he not resigned his office in August 1974.
Of the other impeachment cases since 1789, one was of a senator—William Blount of Tennessee, case dismissed in 1799—and one a cabinet officer, Secretary of War William Belknap, who was acquitted in 1876. Most of the other impeachment cases have involved federal judges, eight of whom have been convicted.
Read a brief history of impeachment in this article from Smithsonian, “The History of American Impeachment.”
Read more about the Constitutional power of impeachment in these articles from the National Constitution Center.
“The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
(This is a revised version of a post originally written for Veterans Day in 2011. The meaning still applies.)
On Veterans Day, a reminder of what the day once meant and what it should still mean.
That was the moment at which World War I –then called THE GREAT WAR– largely came to end in 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
One of the most tragically senseless and destructive periods in all history came to a close in Western Europe with the Armistice –or end of hostilities between Germany and the Allied nations — that began at that moment. Some 20 million people had died in the fighting that raged for more than four years since August 1914. The formal end of the war came with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
Besides the war casualties, an estimated 100 million people died during the war of the Spanish flu, a worldwide pandemic that was completely linked to the war and had an impact on its outcome. That is the subject of my recent book, More Deadly Than War:The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War.
The date of November 11th became a national holiday of remembrance in many of the victorious allied nations –a day to commemorate the loss of so many lives in the war. And in the United States, President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. A few years later, in 1926, Congress passed a resolution calling on the President to observe each November 11th as a day of remembrance:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
Of course, the hopes that “the war to end all wars” would bring peace were short-lived. By 1939, Europe was again at war and what was once called “the Great War” would become World War I. With the end of World War II, there was a movement in America to rename Armistice Day and create a holiday that recognized the veterans of all of America’s conflicts. President Eisenhower signed that law in 1954. (In 1971, Veterans Day began to be marked as a Monday holiday on the third Monday in November, but in 1978, the holiday was returned to the traditional November 11th date).
Today, Veterans Day honors the duty, sacrifice and service of America’s nearly 25 million veterans of all wars, unlike Memorial Day, which specifically honors those who died fighting in America’s wars.
We should remember and celebrate all those men and women. But lost in that worthy goal is the forgotten meaning of this day in history –the meaning which Congress gave to Armistice Day in 1926:
to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations …
inviting the people of the United States to observe the day … with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
The Library of Congress offers an extensive Veterans History Project.
The Veterans Administration website offers more resources on teaching about Veterans Day.
Read more about World War I and all of America’s conflicts in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
I discuss the role of Americans in battle in more than 240 years of American history in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (Hachette Books and Random House Audio). MORE DEADLY THAN WAR: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War was published in May 2018.
(Video directed and produced by Colin Davis; originally posted October 2015)
When I was a kid in the early 1960s, the autumn social calendar was highlighted by the Halloween party in our church. In these simpler day, the kids all bobbed for apples and paraded through a spooky “haunted house” in homemade costumes –Daniel Boone replete with coonskin caps for the boys; tiaras and fairy princess wands for the girls. It was safe, secure and innocent.
The irony is that our church was a Congregational church — founded by the Puritans of New England. The same people who brought you the Salem Witch Trials.
Here’s a link to a history of those Witch Trials in 1692.
Rooted in pagan traditions more than 2000 years old, Halloween grew out of a Celtic Druid celebration that marked summer’s end. Called Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sow-een), it combined the Celts’ harvest and New Year festivals, held in late October and early November by people in what is now Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. This ancient Druid rite was tied to the seasonal cycles of life and death — as the last crops were harvested, the final apples picked and livestock brought in for winter stables or slaughter. Contrary to what some modern critics believe, Samhain was not the name of a malevolent Celtic deity but meant, “end of summer.”
The Celts also saw Samhain as a fearful time, when the barrier between the worlds of living and dead broke, and spirits walked the earth, causing mischief. Going door to door, children collected wood for a sacred bonfire that provided light against the growing darkness, and villagers gathered to burn crops in honor of their agricultural gods. During this fiery festival, the Celts wore masks, often made of animal heads and skins, hoping to frighten off wandering spirits. As the celebration ended, families carried home embers from the communal fire to re-light their hearth fires.
Getting the picture? Costumes, “trick or treat” and Jack-o-lanterns all got started more than two thousand years ago at an Irish bonfire.
Christianity took a dim view of these “heathen” rites. Attempting to replace the Druid festival of the dead with a church-approved holiday, the seventh-century Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor saints and martyrs. Then in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to remember the departed and pray for their souls. Together, the three celebrations –All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls Day– were called Hallowmas, and the night before came to be called All-hallows Evening, eventually shortened to “Halloween.”
And when millions of Irish and other Europeans emigrated to America, they carried along their traditions. The age-old practice of carrying home embers in a hollowed-out turnip still burns strong. In an Irish folk tale, a man named Stingy Jack once escaped the devil with one of these turnip lanterns. When the Irish came to America, Jack’s turnip was exchanged for the more easily carved pumpkin and Stingy Jack’s name lives on in “Jack-o-lantern.”
Halloween, in other words, is deeply rooted in myths –ancient stories that explain the seasons and the mysteries of life and death.
You can read more about ancient myths in the modern world in Don’t Know Much About Mythology and more about the Salem Witch Trials in Don’t Know Much About History.
(Video edited and produced by Colin Davis; originally posted October 2011.)
Add me to the list. I think it is well past time that we ditched Columbus Day.
I found it (the world) was not round . . . but pear shaped, round where it has a nipple, for there it is taller, or as if one had a round ball and, on one side, it should be like a woman’s breast, and this nipple part is the highest and closest to Heaven.
–Christopher Columbus, Log of his third voyage (1498)
“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
We all remember that much. But after that basic date, things get a little fuzzy. Here’s what they didn’t tell you–
*Most educated people knew that the world was not flat.
*Columbus never set foot in what would become America.
*Christopher Columbus made four voyages to the so-called New World. And his discoveries opened an astonishing era of exploration and exploitation. But his arrival marked the beginning of the end for tens of millions of Native Americans spread across two continents.
* On his third voyage, he wrote that the world was not round but pear-shaped, like a woman’s breast. They did not tell us that in Geography class.
In 1892, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus inspired the composition of the original Pledge of Allegiance and a proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison describing Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” (Source: Library of Congress, “American Memory: Today in History: October 12”)
That was the patriotic American can-do spirit behind the Columbian Exposition—also known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.
In 1934, the “progress and enlightenment” celebrated in the Columbus narrative was powerful enough to merit a federal holiday on October 12 – a reflection of the growing political clout of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal organization that fought discrimination against recently arrived immigrants, many of them Italian and Irish.
Once a hero. Now a villain. Cities and states around the country are changing the name of the holiday to “Indigenous People’s Day” or “Native American Day” to move this holiday away from a man whose treatment of the natives he encountered included barbaric punishments and forced labor.
“Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America. And it urges Americans to rethink history.”
Here are more resources on “Indigenous People’s Day” from the Teaching Tolerance organization
The story of “Isabella’s Pigs,” and the role of Queen Isabella in the making of the New World, is depicted in America’s Hidden History
“Why do Americans and Canadians Celebrate Labor Day?”
You can also view it on YouTube:
You can read more about the history and meaning of Labor Day in this piece I wrote for CNN a few years ago:
Read more about the period of labor unrest in Don’t Know Much About® History.